I built a $150M SaaS business - here are 4 things I’d do if I had to start with $0

If I had to start a SaaS business with $0, there are four things I’d absolutely do to get my first customers and set myself up for success.

Back when I started lemlist in 2018, I had no money, no network, and no customers.

I was convinced that to build a successful business, you needed to raise funds.

I needed money to make more money.

I sent hundreds of emails to VCs pitching my product.

And I kept receiving rejection messages. With different levels of kindness to express it…👇

So, can you really build a successful SaaS business without raising funds?

Well, in the last 5 years, I was able to go from nothing to building 5 SaaS businesses (lemlist, lemwarm, lemcal, Taplio, TweetHunter) and crossing $20M in ARR, 100% bootstrapped.

In this article, I want to present you 4 simple steps that will help you grow a profitable SaaS business, faster than anyone else👇

4 things I’d do if I had to start a SaaS with $0

1. Become a secret agent in your audience

The first strategy is to become a secret agency in your audience… meaning that to get your first customers, you’ll need to infiltrate your target audience.

There’s a quote from Steve Jobs that says:

“Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.”

In other words, if you want to sell your product or service to people, you need to make them trust you.

And trust is based on three essential elements:

  • targeting
  • messaging
  • credibility

And for sales, it depends on:

  • how you identify your prospects’ problems and needs
  • how you express the value prospects will get from your products
  • how you demonstrate that you are an expert in this field

So how can you build trust with your first customers?

Well, here’s how I did it by following the trust framework.

1- Targeting

In 2018, when I started lemlist, I joined a lot of Facebook communities with people interested in cold emailing.

2- Messaging

I determined what they were struggling with and offered solutions to their problems.

I knew that people struggled to get meetings with their prospects.

So when I posted in a cold emailing community, I focused on a solution they could use.

So how exactly did I make people engage with the post?

3- Credibility

Thanks to the credibility part…

I established my expertise through social proof.

By adding a screenshot of a positive answer I received for my campaign, I showed everyone what kind of results they could get.

I also quoted a conversation I had with the community’s creator, adding even more social proof.

Following this simple framework, I got 300 beta testers for my product. 🚀

To me, that can be summarized by one quote from Zig Ziglar:

“You can have everything in life if you will just help other people get what they want.”

Another way to grow your business by leveraging communities is to repurpose existing content you wrote.

Here Pat Walls’ strategy was to republish every inspiring story he wrote for his website on Reddit.

This allowed him to get 1,000 visitors in 3 days and to eventually 4x his traffic website.

He pushed it even further by commenting on others’ posts with his articles’ links, generating 900+ traffic visits in a day and tons of signups to his newsletter for free.

With his strategy, Pat got tons of positive feedback and helped a small business owner get coverage:

2. Build an audience before building a product

My second tip is that you need to build your audience… before your product.

Why do you think Justin Welsh was able to sell his online courses for $1.3M…?

His strategy was simple: build an audience of millions of people that trusted him to eventually sell them something.

So let’s see how you can leverage this strategy to get more customers than everyone else.

First, you need to build your personal brand based on the trust framework: targeting, messaging, and credibility.

For example, Tal is helping salespeople with their could outreach.

He’s sharing daily tips and tricks on LinkedIn on how to book more meetings based on his own experience.

He’s answering each comment with the right solutions:

And he’s engaging with tons of other experts in his field by commenting on their posts.

Thanks to this strategy he was able to:

  • build an audience that trusted him
  • get noticed in the sales outreach industry
  • book over 10 meetings each week with qualified leads

And every creator is doing the same:

Justin Welsh is talking to solopreneurs who want to grow on LinkedIn by sharing the techniques he used to grow to 400k+ followers.

Dan Koe is talking to entrepreneurs who want to reach their full potential by publishing inspirational posts and productivity tips based on his personal experiences.

Tibo is talking to business owners who want to build businesses through their audiences by writing daily posts about his entrepreneurship journey since 2015.

This strategy allowed them, later on, to sell something to their audience.

Justin Welsh sold content creation courses for $2M.

Dan Koe made over $2M by selling online courses and video editing services.

Tibo was able to build a $1M SaaS thanks to the support of his 100k audience.

Sharing everything you’re learning along the way will make you, your business, and other people grow.

And once you’ve built an audience on social media, you turn it into a community.

That’s how I created the lemlist family with 20k+ sales experts on Facebook.

From the expertise I had built on social media, I gathered people in my target audience and showcased how my products could solve their problems.

And since they trusted me, they supported my business, eventually helping me scale my SaaS products to $20M in ARR.

3. Change your life with cold emails

Now, let’s see how you can create cold emails that will make your prospects convert.

Way before I started lemlist, I was sending cold emails to pretty much everyone.

I tried hundreds of different approaches, from the spray and pray approach to the highly targeted one.

And often, I would receive rejection messages:

But each rejection message was a way to improve my craft.

And after testing different approaches for months, I managed to close a huge client: Zendesk

Here’s what I did differently:

I used the value equation to write my email.

The value people will find in your offer can be determined by the dream outcome (what you offer) times the trust you build with them, divided by the effort it’ll take to achieve the dream outcome.

Here’s how it works:

I shared the dream outcome: helping them book more meetings.

Then I build some trust:

I talked about a pain they had: a low open rate and even lower meeting booked rate.

I conveyed the value of my product: a solution that could 5x their current results.

I shared my credibility through:

  • some numbers about cold emailing - showing my expertise
  • talking about someone they knew who had helped me improve my product
  • a mention of a company that doubled its results with my solution (which is even more engaging for them since it’s one of their competitors)

Finally, I minimized the needed effort to a 15min chat with me.

As Sahil Lavingia once said:

"If you write every cold email like it might change your life, one may. If you don't, none will."

And if you want to change your life with cold emails, I created a document with all of my best cold emails templates 😉

4. Get closer to people you admire

If you get closer to people that are seen as industry leaders, you’ll build much more trust with your target audience.

For example, if you see me having a chat with Beyonce - you’ll be more likely to think that I have influence.

That’s how the association phenomenon works.

To grow your SaaS effectively, one of the best way to get closer to leaders is by starting a podcast.

Last year, I was able to associate myself with big names like Noah Kagan, Justin Welsh, Tim Soulo, and Jason Cohen thanks to this strategy.

Hence, exposing myself to their audience and building more trust.

And apart from helping you gain more subscribers, this strategy has many other advantages:

  • you gain more credibility in your field
  • you meet with people you admire
  • you learn tons of insight from them
  • … and everything is free

But how do you convince million-dollar founders to come on your podcast?

Here’s how I convinced Noah Kagan to do an interview with me:

Once again, I used the value equation framework.

I shared with him the dream outcome by answering the question “what’s in it for you?”

I made sure to build trust with him by

  • showing the research I did on him
  • highlighting similarities between our companies
  • talking about other successful founders who were on my podcast before
  • and adding some social proof

And I showed him that the effort it would take to reach the dream outcome was minimal (a 1 hour call with me).

If you know how to build trust, then and only then you’ll be able to ask something from people.

You can also associate yourself with leaders through co-creation.

Which is a strategy requiring even less effort from others.

Here’s how Rachel Turner, a LinkedIn content creator talking about leadership, was able to go from only a few likes…

… to hundreds of engagement:

She associated herself with top leaders with a simple “curation” approach.

With a single cold email, she asked thought leaders what was their favorite books.

For her audience, it created a feeling of proximity between her and the different thought leaders while requiring very little effort.

Here’s the cold email I received to be featured on this post:

I answered because the sender was able to:

  • show me the dream outcome: exposing my profile to a bigger audience & being associated with other leaders
  • build trust by talking about my company and a pain I have as a founder
  • make the effort it would take me as small as possible

And of course because he followed the rules of a cold email:

  • he made his email easy to read by keeping it sharp
  • he personalized his email
  • he used a straightforward CTA

Later on, he made sure to follow up with the link of the post so I engage with the post:

By doing that with 24 other thought leaders like Chris Do, Jesse Puji, and Stephanie Stuckey, Rachel was able to get way more coverage than usual.

Trust is not something you build in one day.

Yet, all of those actions will have a life-long impact on your business.

Because once you’ve built trust with your prospects - I can promise you they’ll stick with you.

If you follow those 4 steps, you’ll be able to get your first customers - even with $0.

And that’s the first step to growing a profitable SaaS business.

And I believe the most important is that you’ll be a free, successful founder.

What did you learn today?

So, to sum up, here are the 5 main things you need to remember:

  • You don’t need thousands of $$$ to build a successful SaaS business.
  • Build trust to generate more sales.
  • Focus on helping people solve their problems and bring them value.
  • When you outreach, people always ask yourself, “What’s in it for them?”
  • Grow your audience before your product.

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Peace, love & profit 💰