Insights into a bootstrapped SaaS company, ProdPad: with CEO Janna Bastow

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ProdPad are a very cool Product Management SaaS built by Product Managers for Product Managers. They’re bootstrapped yet it’s no hinderance for their growth and I asked their Co-Founder and CEO, Janna Bastow, to be my guest on The SaaS Revolution Show podcast to share some insights into ProdPad and its acquistion, retention and growth strategies.

You can listen to the podcast episode or read the transcript below, and you can also subscribe on iTunes and never miss an episode.

Alex Theuma:  Hi Janna, Is it tough being a product manager, startup founder, consultant and accidental event manager in one?


Janna Bastow:  It means that I’m constantly changing gears and changing hats.  But a lot of the stuff has… a lot of the roles that I do, a lot of the things that I do have a lot of things in common.  I find that whatever I do as an event manager I learned from and can apply in my product management hat or as a SaaS founder myself.


AT:   What is ProdPad?


JBProdPad is product management software.  Something that was started by my co-founder and I several years back when we were both product managers at different startups based in London.  We both needed this tool to help us organize the ideas coming in from our team or the feedback coming in from our customers and help us prioritize and figure out what should we build first, what should we build after that, and create views like a roadmap or a way of visualizing priorities of those ideas.

The tool is specifically built for the product manager’s new company.


AT:  And so you kind of answered the next question as to why you founded it.  So you kind of have this problem yourself and from that gave birth to ProdPad as such.


JB:  Yeah, exactly.  We looked around for other alternatives and there was just really nothing out there.  Even today, we find that most people who are using ProdPad are weaning themselves off using spreadsheets and PowerPoint documents and Google Docs or whatever else they’ve got at their fingertips as opposed to dedicated tools that are actually really built to properly help them out.


AT:  I quite often see many SaaS founders in the interviews say that their biggest competitor almost like the de facto answer is the Excel spreadsheet.  Would you say the similar case for yourself?


JB:  Yeah, pretty much.  When it comes down to it, it’s still so hard to beat a pen-and-paper, for example.  Think of all those task managers that are out there that are replaced by the fact that I’ve got Post-it notes and a pen in front of me and that’s more effective than trying to enter it into some other tool.  What it comes down to is the competition isn’t just the other apps that are competing for your AdWords, for the same words as you.  It’s whatever people are using besides our product.


AT:   CrunchBase tells me that you’re potentially bootstrapped.  I didn’t see any particular investment rounds.  Is that correct?


JB:  Yeah.


AT:  And can you tell me a little bit more about why the bootstrapped decision and, I guess the second part to the question, have you thought about raising VC money?  Will you raise VC money?


JB:  Yeah, that’s a good question.  You’re right, we are completely bootstrapped and we have been from the beginning.  When we started ProdPad we didn’t want to necessarily start a startup, something that we built for the sake of raising funds and growing the team and hoping that something picks up down the line.  We knew that we wanted to focus on getting revenue from Day 1 so that’s what we did.  All of our growth has been based off of organic growth and revenues that come in from our customers.


AT:  If an investor comes to you at one of the conferences, many conferences that you attend, so I hear, you’re having an old-fashioned and they’re really interested in investing or doing a $10 million Series A in ProdPad to get you to hyper-growth mode, what do you say?  What does Janna Bastow say to them?


JB:  So we’ve actually been in that position where we’ve been offered money.  And while it does look like a really lucrative deal there’s always a catch with investor money, with VC money and so we’re wary of that and want to make sure that whatever we do isn’t just because we need the money but because we found the right person that we really want to work with that adds more value than just the cash in our bank.


AT:  Okay.  So not ruling it out but it might happen in the future.  But at the moment, you’re going great as a bootstrapped company.

So we’ve moved away from the financial conversation in preparation for the podcast, looking at the website, have a look at your team.  You seem to be pretty much performing technical roles in a technical background.  You also have one Head of Customer Success, a Head of Growth.  I didn’t see any sales people there.  So no dedicated sales hire yet?  Are you doing all the sales or how does it work?


JB:  I guess you could technically say that I’m doing the sales.  But to be honest, we don’t really have sales.  We don’t do cold calling.  We don’t do outreach or anything like that.  All of our leads, all of our customers come to us because they are finding us through organic means.  Basically they’re finding us in search results because they’re looking up things like “How do I do a roadmap?” or “What should I include in user personas?”  We’ve written articles about this sort of thing.  And based on that, they find us, they see that we’ve got free trial, they sign up and we go from there.

Other people find us through social media, word-of-mouth, but we don’t really do much in the way of advertising.  We don’t have anything in the way of formal sales process.  Right now it’s been all self-serve and so we’ve been focusing on that by getting customer success first to make sure that people that do sign up are getting the absolute most out of it even 8 months or a year or 2 years after they first signed up.

We just recently did a hire of our Head of Growth as well.  We’re just now starting to look at reaching out further than the people who are just actually looking for something like ProdPad.


AT:   Is it hard in the very early days when it’s just you and your sort of co-founder to sort of have that strategy, this kind of organic growth without doing the outbound sales when you kind of compare it to let’s say companies like Typeform?

And we’re talking of I use them as an example that they don’t have any outbound sales, and I think Intercom and Atlassian, I guess.  Well, they were bootstrapped I think for a certain time.  But Intercom and Typeform heavily VC-funded and therefore they can perhaps afford to have this kind of customer success organic growth model and really invest in all this marketing and customer success.  But it must be much harder for a bootstrapped company, right?


JB:  Well, when we started, let’s be honest, we didn’t know exactly what it is we were doing.  But we did what we knew best which was to talk about what we thought mattered to our potential customers.  Even before we started ProdPad, we were constantly blogging about the product management process and our best practices and our studies and whatever else we’d come up with.  So this is years and years of talking about product management which has got us to a great position where people know us and trust us based on what it is we’re talking about in the product world.

It never came natural to us to do outbound sales or hiring somebody who wasn’t a product-minded person just to do sales.  We’ve always just sold ProdPad ourselves and we’re continuing to learn from that.



Can you maybe share some more insights into the growth strategy of ProdPad and perhaps how that sort of differs from when you started to what it is now?  Now that you have this Head of Growth, what is the mandate for the Head of Growth?


JB:  When we first started ProdPad we assumed that the typical user would be somebody like us.  Product managers in the startup world.  At first it was because it was our friends using it and product managers that we knew from our local events.

But as ProdPad started growing, we started finding a wider and wider difference, different reach that we were hitting.  We now have companies who are of all different shapes and sizes, in all different industries, and people with all different job titles as well using us.  ProdPad isn’t just a tool for people who are called Product Managers but we’ve got everything from entrepreneurs who are launching their first product through to CTOs or marketing people or project managers who all have a play in the product.

And it’s growing and changing I think very much as the product world itself is growing and changing.  It’s an evolving role.  It’s a discipline that’s becoming better and better known and more and more defined but it’s really an interesting one to grow alongside because we’re not quite sure as to how big it’s going to get or where it is actually going to go or what the final discipline is going to look like in 5, 10 years.

That means that a lot of what we’re doing with understanding the market is just getting a feel for what kind of different people are using ProdPad and what kind of value they’re getting out of it.  And every time we talk to companies, we’re always astounded by what’s different and, more importantly, what’s the same between them.  We’ll have companies who are manufacturing massive machines and I’ll think there’s no way we have anything in common with a product manager who manages these massive manufactured machines versus somebody who’s managing a mobile app.  But it’s actually remarkably the same, the types of processes that are going through.

As we grow, we’re actually realizing that more and more people need something like ProdPad than we actually originally envisioned.  But so far, reach has been people who look for something like ProdPad, who actively search for something like it or put themselves in a position to hear about something like ProdPad.  What we’d like to do is actually spread the word to the hundreds of thousands of companies out there who have product-minded people who don’t even know that there are such things as product management tools or any help that they can get for their job.


AT:  And is that related then to the recent Head of Growth hire to get the word out there to these hundreds of thousands of people?


JB:  Yeah, exactly.  So far, we’ve been finding people on a pretty narrow thing.  It’s given us some great growth.  We’re constantly up there in the search results or we’re constantly getting people in who are looking for roadmap templates or personas management software or idea management software.  That kind of thing.  But there’s so many people who just need something like ProdPad but don’t even realize that they do.

For example, we know that anybody who uses JIRA for building the development side of their product almost every time we talk to them, let them know about ProdPad they’re like, “Wow, I really need something like this in my life.  Why didn’t I even know that this existed?”  So we’re actually selling to a market who doesn’t yet know that they need something like this and almost creating the market in itself.  So it’s a really interesting space.


AT:  And one of the features of the product enables the user, to use your terminology, to roadmap like a pro.  I’m not really a strong sort of product person or know a hell of a lot around roadmaps.

I remember a conversation I think I had on one of my podcasts with David Cancel from Drift.  I think he wasn’t a big fan of sharing roadmaps, if I remember correctly.  I guess my question to you is it a good idea for companies to share their roadmaps with their users?


JB:  It’s actually a really contentious subject as to whether you can take your roadmap and you share it out there or not.  I think a lot of it comes down to confusion as to what a roadmap is.  A lot of people still see a roadmap as this glorified Gantt chart that points out what features are going to be built and when and little arrows and labels to say this thing is going to be done by Q2 and this thing is going to be done in 3 weeks or whatever else.  One of the problems with that is that as soon as you put dates on your roadmap, unless you have actually spent that time to plan everything out, which almost guarantees you haven’t if you’re building in an agile fashion.  You’re not spending months and months doing resource planning and whatnot.  And so your roadmap ends up becoming this document that you couldn’t show to your customers because it’s making all these promises about what’s going to be out there.  That is not the type of thing that you want to show to your customers.

What we advocate instead is a theme-based roadmap or a lean product roadmap which basically centres around the idea that your roadmap is just looking out at various time horizons.  What you’re doing now, what you’re doing in the near-term, and what you’re doing in the future.  And instead of outlining different features that are going to be done, you just give the themes, the general areas that you’re planning on tackling or the problems that you plan on solving down the line.

And what you’re really doing with your roadmap is articulating “Our product vision is X and these are the steps that we’re going to take to meet that vision.”  Wherever it comes really handy to show this to your customers is that it helps start the conversations around where it is that you’re going with the product and helps the customer understand what it is that you’re trying to achieve and if they’re asking for, for example, a particular feature.

They might say, “I’d like to have an iPad app,” and he was the product person or as the sales person or whoever it is who’s speaking to this customer.  The first thing you might say is, “We don’t have that right now but it is on the roadmap.”  And you can show them that roadmap and say, “Yeah, we’re planning on going into making some mobile stuff that you can use as on-the-go.”  If you show them that they can then see all the different things that are going to lead up to that and they might have an opinion saying, “You know what?  You’re right.  I think that roadmap is really helpful and the stuff that’s coming out beforehand is the right stuff for us.”

Or they might turn around and say, “Well, actually, I think that this thing is actually much more important than all this other stuff.”  And based on that feedback, not just from one customer but collective of tons of different customers who get to see your roadmap and give the feedback into it, you’ll actually learn as to whether you’re heading in the right direction.  You might find out that something that you thought was supposed to be important on your roadmap is actually not important to them at all and they just sort of say, “I’d rather you work on something else.  We’re not going to find this useful.”  That could save you weeks, if not months of work just by avoiding projects or making sure that you’re working on stuff in the right order.


AT:   What is the importance of understanding user personas for SaaS companies, but according to Janna Bastow?


JB:  Great.  Okay.  So user persona is basically a characterization of a type of user who would use your product.  It’s not a real person but it is a good way of understanding what types of people are going to be using your product.

The thing is that a lot of people think about the product in kind of black and white terms.  You’ve got this one particular user who uses it and they don’t really think about the different types of people who are going to get involved.  The simple one to look at is who’s actually paying for your product?  Who’s your buyer versus who’s your actual end-user?  These are completely different personas and the way that you treat them in the app, in your notifications, in your emails, they have to treat them differently.  You have to use this as an understanding in terms of what kind of things are they looking to achieve, what kind of problems do they have, what are their limitations, what kind of patience, what level of patience do they have with apps like this?

We’ve been actually doing a lot of interesting things around personas with our onboarding.  We’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get our onboarding just right.  And one thing that we were doing wrong and, to be honest, I think almost every other SaaS company out there does wrong, which is assume that your customers when they first joined up are all pretty much the same.

We’ve actually started a project where when you join up, we actually listen to find out what kind of things do you do in the first 30 seconds.  What do you do in the first 5 minutes?  What do you do on the first 2 days?  And based on that the emails that go out to you are vastly different.  We see some people who sign up for a free trial, click twice and then disappear and never come back.  We’re not going to bug them with the same email saying, “And now, here’s how you export your roadmap” or something really advanced like that.  Like they honestly looked at nothing.  We know that.  We can actually send them an email saying, “Hey, what happened?  How can we help out?”  And it’s been getting much better response rates.

And for the people who are actually really actively getting involved, we can skip all this fluff saying, “And here’s how you add an idea” and jump them to something much more complex like our secret pro-tips that our advanced ProdPad users want to be interested in.  And with that we’re seeing more engagement with that type of persona as well.

Just by looking at these personas that are split out from the moment they joined, what we can see in the first 2-3 days of usage we’ve been able to target and get more activity out of both sides.


AT:  Are you using any specific SaaS tool or platform to really give this information as to who your user personas are and then follow up with these email or sales automation, marketing automation campaigns?  Can you share that?


JB:  We actually do our tracking in-house.  Most of our data is gathered directly from our servers and we crunch it ourselves and understand what people are actually up to.  We then push this onto various tools which help us visualize or use this data in various ways.

One of the tools that we’ve just got set up with to help with these persona-specific onboarding is a tool called Drip.  Basically, it allows us to send out emails based on particular actions.  So if so-and-so did do this then send them this email.  If they didn’t do this then send them this email.  But it’s a lot more complex than that when you look at the work flow and put a lot of thought into what should happen if they do respond to that email and what should happen if they don’t respond to that email.  It gets pretty complex as you work your way down the workflow but it seems to be doing the trick.

It’s something we just launched a few weeks ago and we’re still in testing phase but everything is looking really promising.



Another thing that I picked up from your blog was this acronym, HiPPO.  Quite a funny one.  What is it?  Why should we care?


JB:  So HiPPO, you’re not talking about the sub-Saharan African mammal that…


AT:  No.


JB:  By Hippo, what we mean is it’s a term that means Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.  Basically, it’s a joke that a lot of people use within companies.  It means that there’s that person at the table who’s got this opinion and it often ends up sidelining your work or changing your scope or otherwise throwing your work off because it’s this high-paid executive at your company who’s got this opinion.  It might be a CEO or an investor or somebody else like that who throws things in there like little grenades and it’s drawing you off track.  So we were talking about how you protect your backlog and your roadmap from HiPPOs.


AT:   As a founder of a SaaS company, founder of ProdPad, what would have been your biggest challenges to date?


JB:  One of the most difficult things with running ProdPad has been the fact that the company changes.  As soon as you think you understand what it is you’re doing, you end up hitting some new milestone and the entire thing changes.  The first 6 months were gruelling because we just sat in our rooms coding away and we had no customers.  The next 6 months was gruelling because all of a sudden we had our early users and our customers giving us feedback and we’re trying to work out how we can actually build something.  Just when we thought we had it nailed down, we realized that we needed to hire and grow and find new ways of reaching people.

It’s always challenging to constantly learn and to be open to kind of throwing out the playbook and start again, learn from people at that next step.


AT:  What has been the biggest lesson or lessons learnt as a SaaS founder of ProdPad?


JB:  That’s a good one.  I guess one of the biggest lessons we learned, and this was actually very early on, was that even though we were building ProdPad for ourselves, we were product managers at startups and we needed this tool, we learned very early on that we were not our market or that our market of the two of us was certainly not going to be big enough.  And so it took a lot of humility to stop what we’re doing, throw some code out because we’d ended up building something that wasn’t applicable to anybody but ourselves and start listening to our customers building what was actually universally useful to more than just two product managers.

And so as we’ve grown, we’ve had to listen to hundreds, if not thousands of product people tell us what they think works, how the processes work, what kind of things they need, and just constantly evolve the product.

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