Don’t arbitrarily build what you think is a solution. Truly understand who your customers are including the problems they are experiencing and the solutions they’re willing to pay for. This is where many new SaaS companies begin, and it usually becomes an issue. In our case, we build what we thought was a good SaaS solution based on our experience. What we found out is that our customer base were new to recording videos and were overwhelmed by the solution’s features. Let’s say we build Noah’s Ark and all they felt comfortable using and wanted was a rowboat. We ended up spending the time to redesign the UI to meet their basic needs and they are still happy customers. The lesson: people will buy what they want and not necessarily what they need.
As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vito Michael Santoro, Vaetas Co-Founder. Vito is a digital marketing specialist providing strategic direction and develops results-driven technology solutions. He has held senior marketing positions in the high-tech industry, including product marketing and is a former adjunct professor with the computer science department at Western Connecticut State University. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Haven and received his master’s degree from Central CT State University.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I worked in the high-tech (computer networks) industry for 30 years. My positions were in Marketing. As I had no formal education in technology, I learned networking on the job and gained proficiency.
As a side interest, I immersed myself in Internet marketing and became proficient in digital marketing. I built websites part-time that ranked in Google. I earned enough part-time selling other people’s products to put my daughter through college. My specialty was search engine optimization (SEO). This allowed me to obtain marketing positions with two start-up companies as I wasn’t ready to start my own business.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
We began a digital marketing firm and decided to use video screen recordings of potential clients websites to pitch them on our services. The videos required effort to process and we were initially adding a graphic to the email’s body and linking it to the video on YouTube. The viewer had no way of contacting us unless they went back to the email message and replied. The “Aha” moment was realizing that we could design a system that would automate the process and have the viewers respond back directly from a full-screen video without the need for a website.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Our journey felt like a painful white-water rafting journey. We knew where we wanted to go, however there were so many unpredictable obstacles we faced, it felt like we were participating in a Greek tragedy at times. For example, we had built our MVP product and generated some revenue. In the same month, one of our business partners who was the developer, was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Another experience was our Angel investor deciding to pass on an additional investment after he had agreed which left us with little money and still months away from launching our SaaS product.
The icing was when we were about to finally launch our SaaS product, Google updated their Angular development program to a new version. Updating to the new version was not possible and our User Interface (UI) was obsolete days before our launch. We had to rebuild the UI from scratch which delayed our release by eight months.
Did I ever want to give up? No, but I thought about it on various occasions. I had to first decide if this journey was driven by my vision or my ego. When I realized that the vision was sound and that our idea could be a game changer for our users, there was never a question of continuing.
The drive to continue comes from within. The ingredient that separates the Wantrepreneurs from the Entrepreneurs is that successful Entrepreneurs have the grit to succeed. Believing in what we were trying to accomplish and having the grit to push through the challenges is what helped me to continue. I also had a morning ritual that I practiced, especially during the hard times. I had read that in Navy Seal training, they have a bell. If a trainee can’t take it any longer, all they have to do is ring the bell and they could quit. That resonated with me. So, every morning when I started my day, I said out loud, “I’m not going to ring the bell today. I can do this. After a couple of days, it actually motivated me to continue.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We launched our first product and are beginning to generate revenue. We are also launching a second SaaS product for the e-commerce market. It will be released in November 2019. We are still bootstrapping and have built high-end mobile apps for clients. This helps to fund the company while we build our user base. We’re receiving high marks from our users and are planning to expand internationally in 2020. The grit and resilience always helps, even though at times you feel like you need to have your head examined. It also helps to be a good problem solver and think of solutions that are not necessarily typical. For example, it never occurred to us to build apps for other businesses. However, when we received compliments while demoing our SaaS product, we discovered that solution.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I made the mistake of not understanding the target audience and prepared a presentation that was more for a tech audience. I was asked to present at a marketing conference for small businesses and I was able to include demoing our SaaS product. There were about 125 people in attendance. I prepared what I thought was a riveting presentation on video marketing and online personal branding from an SEO perspective. It was a list of tech tips to ensure that their videos ranked in both YouTube and Google search. I was to present just before lunch and was following a presentation on motivation.
The presenter began using an exceptionally loud airhorn to get their attention. Then, she began presenting to Zumba music and had everyone participating. She was dancing while presenting her material. She ran a few minutes late trying to get people to return to their seats and ended her presentation by blasting the airhorn again. She was amazing.
Then I was introduced. I got up on stage hoping to regain my hearing, so I didn’t scream my material at them. I knew I had to think fast. They were enthusiastic, motivated, still on a high and I was standing in the way of their lunch break. So, I took a deep breath and started with a little humor. I said, “Now that you’re completely motivated and on a high, you’ll be happy to know that I’m here to put you back to sleep! It went over very well.
Now it was time to punt. I had my presentation notes in my hand. I extended my arms and tore up the papers and threw the pieces into the air. The room got silent. Then I said, I did that so I wouldn’t put myself to sleep as well. Again it when over well. I then began by saying” I’d like to discuss how being authentic and living your truth can help you to build a powerful online brand with the help of video. I ended the presentation with “Just be your authentic self and the money will follow.” I then demoed our video communication system. It was a success. What I learned is to ensure you know who your audience is and what they want. Then deliver it. Also, when in a bind, learn how to think fast, adjust as much as possible and take corrective action. The rest you make up as you go.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We strive to be a community and it would be our customer support and how our users view us. We respond quickly and help them to solve their problems, even when the issue is not with our software. Usually it’s a Webcam or browser issue that is local to their computer. We take the time to help them and have documented the solutions. We not only provide the solution as help files, we also follow-up with them to ensure that the issues are resolved. We also offer to have a phone or Zoom/Skype call if necessary. For example, we had an elderly women who was struggling with technology in general and wanted to use video to help her with her real estate business. It seemed that the phone support and help docs were too overwhelming for her. As she was local, our business partner Jennifer met with her and walked her through the steps to help her gain confidence. She’s now one of our video rock stars! She even gave us a glowing unsolicited testimonial that she could not believe our commitment to helping our users. We are authentic about building a community and this is helping us to stand out.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Burn out is a real concern and I have experienced it. It is very debilitating, and causes overwhelm and procrastination. Burn out happens when you understand all that has to be done and feel that multitasking for countless hours is the answer. Other issues are feeling like you have to do everything yourself and/or not having the money to outsource part of the workload. Actually, that’s the problem.
What I did to reverse it was to step back from the business and draw out the categories/areas that needed attention. I then listed the items that needed to be completed and prioritized for each. I changed from a multitasking mindset to a focused mindset. I began with a specific category and began with the low hanging fruit. Completing tasks reduces the feeling of being overwhelmed and provides a sense of accomplishment. I also reduced the motion that plagued my day that included checking emails and social media. Instead I focused on doing at least one thing each day that helped to move our business forward. To compliment this, I began exercising again and taking part of the weekend off to meet with friends and unplug. This helped to recharge my batteries and to feel better.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My original mentor, during my early career in high tech, was a former IBM executive who actually ran the Houston Space Center computer systems during the Gemini space program. What he experienced was nothing short of amazing. There was a zero-defect mentality and continuously solving problems was the culture. He was a true leader and taught me more about dealing with people, as well as how to get things accomplished by playing chess when others were playing checkers. Some key items I learned was understanding the difference between motion and productivity and managing through productivity. A great tip he shared that reduced the politics, was he added “no games” to the job description. So it was clear that if someone wanted to do anything to hurt his division, they could be terminated for cause. His mantra was, “It’s okay to make mistakes…it means your learning. If you repeat the mistake, it means your careless and you’re out of here.” It wasn’t a threat, but rather inspiring, because he led by example.
A good story that illustrates his managing through productivity approach was when he wanted to build a new software solution and had to present the idea to the senior team. Usually, just presenting an idea would become a free for all with everyone jockeying for position. So, he quietly had an MVP product build and demoed his idea and the benefits. When done, he asked each of them individually for their input. The end result was an approval to continue with everyone sharing in the decision. He was a master and I feel I am blessed to have learned from the best.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We currently have 850 users for our first product. We decided to grow slower and focus on customer retention to build our recurring income base. We initially built our base through networking and referrals and added their feedback to improve our product. We also use a content marketing strategy and are beginning to use social media advertising.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We charge a monthly recurring fee, or they can pay annually and receive two months free. We offer a free 15-day trial with unlimited access. Users have to enter their credit card to begin the trial and can automatically unsubscribe at any time right from our user interface and they won’t be billed. Once they convert, they can still unsubscribe at any time from the dashboard. We have a 78% conversion rate from free trial to paid.
We initially had a free option with limited features, however the conversions were low, and the users complained that they could not experience the paid features. Also, building a huge user base of free users is not our objective as we have no plans to sell advertising to a list. From our experience, people looking for free solutions usually do not convert well. What we decided was the best approach was attracting users who were serious about building their business and would enter a credit card with a risk-free opportunity to truly test if our solution was correct for them. Our goal is to build a community. Because of this approach, we are building a loyal group of users.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know your “Why!” People buy “why” you’re in your business and not your product. People relate emotionally to the “why,” as it connects with them. What we discovered is that when we communicate our “why” people feel that we’re authentic and feel like they want to belong to our community. When people ask, “it seems like a difficult journey, why are you doing it?” I answer, “Because we know how difficult it is for Entrepreneurs and small businesses to succeed. We wanted to build a call-to-action video communication solution that helps them to easily and authentically connect with their prospects and customers to build their businesses. We discovered that video is the next best way to connect when you can’t meet in person and we wanted to share our success.
- Transition from an employee mindset to that of a business owner. As an employee, you know how to do the job you were hired to do well. You also get a regular paycheck. As a new business owner, you are now responsible for all aspects of the business and you’ll continuously be out of your comfort zone. You may be the last to be paid. A business owner’s mind set provides a holistic view of the business accompanied by a great sense of responsibility to your staff. I remember working over 60 hours per week and after the staff an expenses were paid, all I received was a couple of hundred dollars or sometimes nothing. The good news is, if you think your boss is an idiot for doing it, there is no risk in yelling at yourself in the mirror.
- Don’t arbitrarily build what you think is a solution. Truly understand who your customers are including the problems they are experiencing and the solutions they’re willing to pay for. This is where many new SaaS companies begin, and it usually becomes an issue. In our case, we build what we thought was a good SaaS solution based on our experience. What we found out is that our customer base were new to recording videos and were overwhelmed by the solution’s features. Let’s say we build Noah’s Ark and all they felt comfortable using and wanted was a rowboat. We ended up spending the time to redesign the UI to meet their basic needs and they are still happy customers. The lesson: people will buy what they want and not necessarily what they need.
- Differentiate your business from the competition and ensure its benefits driven. Potential customers are researching businesses before they decide who to give their business to. If you do not differentiate and communicate your value, the decision will come down to price or who they feel they can trust more. In our case, our technology is different (videos play full screen on any device and viewers can take the next action step while engaged watching the videos).
- Build an online brand and use video to publish unique and exceptional helpful content that communicates your authenticity. When people research your business, give them a powerful and unique experience. You then are viewed as an authority in your niche. We built a Vlog that discusses business challenges and invite our users to participate. We also include tips and topics of interest in our niche based on keyword research and our users’ requests. We publish on YouTube, social media and across a public branding network of public blogs. This helps your business to dominate Google and social media for your brand.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement I would start is attracting business owners who are truly authentic and live their truth. They are in business to help and serve others and in doing so, the money follows because of their value. So truly helping is the primary motivator, as opposed to saying what sounds good to generate revenue.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About the author:
Mitch Russo started a software company in his garage, sold it for 8 figures and then went on to work directly with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes to build a $25M business together. Mitch wrote a book called “The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies” and now his 2nd book called Power Tribes — “How Certification Can Explode Your Business.” Mitch helps SaaS company founders scale their own companies using his proprietary system. You can reach Mitch Directly via firstname.lastname@example.org
5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS, With Vito Michael Santoro & Mitch Russo was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.