IF YOU HAVE EVER BEEN TO SAASTOCK DUBLIN, you know exactly why SaaS founders and executives flock from every corner of the world to attend the annual conference. Once a year, thousands of people in the SaaS community gather in the stunning Irish capital city to watch the best of the best show their hand and deliver the latest behind-the-scenes look into the world of SaaS. Three days of work and play ensue and within those days, attendees experience an array of activities from satellite events and bootcamps to intimate panel discussions with executives from the biggest names in SaaS, like Stripe and Salesforce. When the sun goes down, Dublin turns into a playground for event-goers as parties and celebrations take over the city.
Today, you can attend not only SaaStock Dublin but several local conferences and events based across the globe including Australasia, Latin America, Asia, and West Coast United States. SaaStock Local features meetups in a number of major cities and provides personal conversations about the industry relevant to those communities. The name behind these events is Alex Theuma, Founder and CEO of SaaStock.
ALEX BEGAN HIS JOURNEY LEADING UP TO SaaStock nearly 5 years ago when he founded a community-led blog called SaaScribe. Alex’s goal was to create a blog for the SaaS startup community that wasn’t trying to push a product but rather an open conversation amongst likeminded people in the industry and to be a steadfast resource for those looking to become experts in B2B SaaS. Success through the blog led to the launch of The SaaS Revolution Show, a podcast bringing light to major topics in the SaaS industry. During this time Alex unknowingly build the foundation for what would be the perfect network of people who would enable him to organize the SaaS conference phenomenon which is SaaStock. Looking back at Alex’s remarkable success, his passion for connecting SaaS communities is thought to be the reason SaaStock is truly able to perfectly serve its audience with their needs at the forefront.
Speaking with Alex means speaking with a founder knowledgeable in several areas: bootstrapping a complex business model, scaling a successful team, enterprise sales, strategic partnerships, and managing a global community. Alex possesses not only these tried and proven entrepreneurial skills, but also has the unique advantage of watching hundreds of speakers discuss the most pressing topics in SaaS. He always has a finger on the pulse, driving his ability to bring underserved SaaS communities together to learn from experts, network with one another and drive fresh ideas from speaking with likeminded professionals. Few interviews offer insight into such a wide variety of topics, and fortunately Alex took the time to share his founding story, important lessons learned, and his take on how to be a longterm successful founder. We had a chance to turn back the clock and see how SaaStock became a global fan favorite and what experience the company is looking to create for attendees in the future.
You have a fascinating entry into the B2B SaaS community. You spotted this space before many others, and helped to bring it into the mainstream in the early days with SaaScribe and the SaaS Revolution podcast. What was it about B2B SaaS and the startup community that made you say, “This is going to really be something.”?
This was early 2015, but probably the ideas predate that. We’re talking about 2014 where I was starting to learn about and see the SaaS space companies, like Box and Dropbox and Evernote, were in their nascent stages. On top of that, we were seeing all these exciting new applications crop up, and I came across all these new SaaS apps in the work that I was doing as an enterprise software sales guy. They were all much sexier than the platforms that I was selling. That was the first exposure that put SaaS on my doorstep. From there, I just became ever so curious about it because, again, I was selling enterprise software, so I started reading a lot of the information available about the space. I would browse TechCrunch and some of the other blogs that were out there, which at the time were either well-written VC blogs that were sharing information but also looking to get deal flow and promoting their portfolio companies, or vendors that were creating content to drive people to their websites and whatnot. I feel like it just came to me: the idea of a non-vendor, non-biased SaaS blog which is driven by the community.
I felt like that was a good idea. I spoke to a couple of people, and they agreed. So, then I tested it by reaching out to influencers and saying, “Hey, look, here’s my idea about this SaaScribe. It’s a SaaS,”—well, actually I called it a SaaS magazine at the time, funnily enough— ”which is powered by the community.” I reached out to people like Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré and Lincoln Murphy in the early days, amongst others. Surprisingly, to me, they said, “Yeah, I like the idea. We will contribute original content, so we’ll give up our time, write original content for this and be a part of it.” And I was like, “Wow, okay.” People would write us content without us paying them anything. That’s how it got started. And again, I guess we had a bit of an advantage, or piggyback, that we got from the fact that these influencers already had an audience. They brought some attention to SaaScribe, and therefore very quickly it became known that there was a new publication, which was independent, that had no motives. We didn’t know what we were doing or where we were going with it, but it took off—I say, took off to an extent, within context. We had about 30,000 visitors per month after about three or four months, which was pretty good from a standstill of nothing. From there, I started to connect with the community, not only with the writers and the contributors, but people who were reaching out to us saying, “Hey, we like what you’re doing.” Beat folks from Intercom that were running their marketing in communications started reaching out to us. We could see they were subscribing to the newsletter.
We started the SaaS Revolution podcast three months into the journey, which was pretty much the first B2B SaaS podcast, so I had the advantage of being an early entrant. Therefore, I was able to get the likes of Byron Deeter, Tom Gonser, Mark Roberge, Eoghan McCabe, Jason Lemkin and others as guests on for a podcast that actually, at the time, didn’t have a large audience. What seemed to matter was that it was something that they wanted to see succeed, because they knew that if it did it would be good for the industry, and that there wasn’t anything like it. The same with SaaScribe. I think Lincoln Murphy bought into the “why”—that was what they saw in it. They said it was beneficial for the industry, therefore we want to support it. So, I think that’s what it was. They supported it and they really helped power the idea that I brought forward to them. That then led into the meetups and then later, the conferences.
How did you decide to grow the community into a conference? What was the hardest part of founding it?
Founding SaaStock definitely came with a lot of hard parts, of which the naming was not one. The naming literally just came to me. Once I’d decided that I was going to do a conference for SaaS, I was thinking, “I’ve always loved music,” and my family were hippies (Jimi Hendrix fans, you know), things like that. I was just like, “Yeah, SaaStock. Woodstock for SaaS.” I didn’t spend hours or days or weeks or years on it. It just came to me. The most obvious difficulty was that I had no events background. I think if I had had a mentor, reached out to some sort of advisor in the conference space that could guide me throughout that first year, I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes, even purely around the profit and loss side and investing in things that weren’t really necessary. Because ultimately, at the end, whilst we delivered, I would think an excellent event and experience, we weren’t profitable at the end of it.
I definitely made some mistakes along the way regarding profitability, so that was challenging. More generally, though, it was challenging because I’d never run a business before. I went from 11 years in selling other people’s products to starting my own business—which is something I really wanted to do and was very passionate about—to just figuring it out as I go. There were multiple times when we nearly ran out of money. Dealing with all the stresses and putting it all together wasn’t easy. It’s still never easy, running a business. As you go, in some ways it gets easier, in some ways it gets harder. Certainly, the inexperience of the first year was hard in two respects: inexperience of being a founder and inexperience in events. The combination of these two made it extremely challenging. However, we did it. We pulled it off. We got 700 people there and they absolutely loved it. They said this is what Europe needed and what we needed. Everybody said it was better than they expected, which was a nice, backhanded compliment, but I took it!
You didn’t have a mentor at all, even on the first one? You just figured it all out yourself?
Yeah, sadly. I mean, I don’t want to say I figured it out all by myself. I did initially, which shows how green and naïve enough I was to think that I could just do it all by myself. That didn’t last long, that moment. Then I got introduced to a guy, Chris Murphy, who had previously worked at Web Summit, and he was looking for a bit of extra work. He contracted with me for 10 days a month, and so he was the first person that I hired in as a consultant. His experience was much more around the relationship side of things, and the sales and marketing. Just from the operations side of things, we didn’t have much guidance on that. I now think I’m getting maybe a little bit wiser. Obviously, being an entrepreneur takes figuring out a bit, to an extent, but now I look for much more support. I try to have people to advise me in certain areas, which I didn’t really have when I was initially building the company.
Evolution of the SaaS Meetup Space
What did the SaaS space in the UK look like when you initially started building this community, in contrast to where it is now? Is that different from the global SaaS space?
Even four years ago, the UK SaaS space was much smaller than it is now. I’ve seen huge growth. There was a community of founders out there—people who were starting to build SaaS products that just share, I think, this global mindset that every SaaS founder, every SaaS startup seems to have. Which is openness and sharing and generally, everybody in the industry seems to be so super nice. I decided to do the first London SaaS meetup. I was really surprised to find that back then, there wasn’t a SaaS meetup in London, or I think probably even the entire UK. That is what prompted me to take the initiative, because I had SaaScribe and the SaaS Revolution show, so it was just so easy to pull together.
Remember, I had no experience doing this, but we got three or four speakers easily: Janna Bastow, CEO of ProdPad, who was always involved in product; Duane Jackson, who founded KashFlow, which was bought by IRIS; and Paul Joyce, the CEO of Geckoboard, as well as a couple others who joined. Duane Jackson lives in Brighton, and when I invited him to speak, he said, “Yeah, sure. I’d love to support something like this and share my time and my lessons.” Again, bought into the why. It was pretty easy, and we had a great panel conversation. The speakers, and obviously the fact that it was a SaaS meetup, drew the crowd. We got 120 people registered for that event, and about 100 showed up. The room was buzzing, there was great people, great conversations there. It was where, for instance, I met quite a few of the people that I’m still very well connected to today that have been to SaaStock or that are involved in SaaStock, that speak at the conference or sponsor the conference and share their lessons. People like Hannah Chaplin from Receptive, which recently got acquired by Pendo. I met Hannah when she came down from Sheffield to the first London SaaS meetup, which I think shows that there was this real interest and need for founders to get together with their peers.
There wasn’t anything like that at the time. Fast forward to today, there are a lot more meetups in London that I think are much more specific. There’s a SaaS conference which has got a sales focus in London. Apart from SaaStock Local London, there doesn’t really seem to be a broad SaaS meetup. It’s more like, here’s a meetup for SDRs that are in the B2B space, here’s a meetup for growth marketers and here’s a meetup for the specific, I guess, professions within B2B, within startups, rather than a broader SaaS meetup. Our roots, where we came from, were obviously the blog and the meetups. Then once we started to focus on SaaStock, because that’s where the revenue was coming from, the meetup side of things really stopped about 18 months ago. We focused more internationally and took our eye off the ball of London and Dublin, where we came from. These are our origins and the grassroots.
With SaaStock Local, we now have the ability to, at scale, provide or facilitate SaaS meetups across the globe, across various cities. Now, we’re really going back to where we started from. One of our SaaStock Locals we did this year took place in London where Graham Cooke, the CEO of Qubit, spoke at. That was done at Google Cloud. We also did one in Dublin where we had the VP Marketing of Teamwork, and Kieran Flanagan, VP Marketing of Hubspot, as well as a few others speak. That was great, again, drawing crowds of 70, 80 people. The people there were at the beginning of their journey so they ask questions like, “Well, I’m building this product. Is it a SaaS product? I don’t know what it is.” And it was like, “You don’t know if it’s a SaaS product? Okay. Well, let’s start there and figure that out.” When it’s right at the beginning of their journeys, you’re providing a space for founders to come, learn from each other and hear advice from great people, then maybe in a couple of years when they figure out if they’re in SaaS or not, they might come to SaaStock. It’s a longer-term bet. The community part is incredibly important. It’s almost a shame that we took our eye off the ball for 18 months, but I guess we were working within resource constraints, were focusing on where the money was. Now, we still like to look at where the money is coming from, but we’re aiming to get back to our roots.
You pointed out that there were meetups around specific professions, but no broad SaaS meetups. Have you found that there are cross-efficiencies created by broader SaaS meetups when people can talk from different spaces and learn from one another?
Certainly, the companies benefit from this ecosystem of meetups. They’ll send their SDRs to the SDR meetup to learn about being a better salesperson. They’ll also then send the same SDRs or sales team to a SaaStock meetup to try and drum up new business. I think one feeds the other, and there is a benefit found in a good ecosystem of meetups for networking—certainly in places like London—that we and startups at, really whatever stage of the journey, can grow from. Whether you’ve got an idea and you want to build something, or whether it’s, “I’ve got a 100-person company and I want to send my employees to these events.” I am constantly earmarking a lot of the events happening in London and sending them to my team and saying, “This one could be beneficial for you from a learning perspective, this one from a sales perspective,” et cetera, et cetera. Our team are often going out there networking and get a lot of business from that. Also, it’s good for them to learn to network and to educate them around certain topics. Then I guess from a broader picture, that’s what SaaStock the conference, is bringing all of that together on a much larger scale. It’s for people to network, learn from all the speakers that we have and get a lot of business from one another. SaaS companies also love selling to each other, so we help facilitate that.
How do you go about creating content that the audience wants to hear? We have seen how much content curation goes into SaaStock and it is formidable.
Luckily (although I do kind of miss it) I don’t do it anymore. For the first three years I did it, but with a lot of help. I was curating the agenda, as well as obviously running the company, doing the sales, doing everything. But initially, that’s expected. When you’re a founder and you’re only two and a half people, you’ve got to wear many hats and satisfy many different functions. My curiosity and my knowledge around SaaS, as well as the influencers and speakers that I chose then, enabled me to work with them to shape an agenda. The first year, I came up with the idea to have two stages for the first SaaStock. We had the “Playbook” stage, and then we had the “Operator” stage. The idea around the Playbook stage was that we’d provide the Playbook to creating a scaling SaaS company, which would entail covering the key pillars that you would need in order to do that, all in one day.
We then had to figure out which of our speakers fit into the sales side, and who fit into marketing, retention et cetera. I also got to work with those that are much more experienced than myself, because again remembering, whilst I’m maybe a SaaS fanboy or a SaaS geek, I’ve never run a SaaS company and I’ve never been a VC. So, I’m not at the coalface every day of what’s happening and what it takes to build a successful SaaS company. There are those out there that are experienced in this regard that could help me build a valuable content track. I brought ideas to people like Christoph Janz from Point Nine Capital, Stephen Millard from Notion Capital—certainly two I can remember. If I’m forgetting the third, I apologize to whoever that person was. I then would have a steering committee tied to the meeting with them and say, “Okay, here are the ideas, here is where I am, what do you think about this? Any suggestions?” They would provide feedback, and that helped me shape that very first agenda. The Playbook stage was meant for maybe some of the more well-known CEOs, whereas the Operator stage was for the executives who were really executing the plan and going a bit deeper.
We found both stages were very popular and very busy, but maybe by virtue of the fact that the Operator stage only had 200-person capacity, there were queues out the door for people to get in there. That was really nice to see, although I guess frustrating for some others. Then we tweaked it. In the second year we had a Scale, Growth and Traction stage. I thought, “Well, let’s put on content for whatever stage of business you are in.” Whatever stage your SaaS company is at, from $0 to $1 million, $1 million to $10 million or $10 million and above, we will have content tailored for you. That’s how we broke it down. I would recruit about 30 speakers in SaaS in the space of about a month. Once we had our first 30 speakers, I stopped recruiting speakers for a couple of months and just focused on the sales. Then it would be time to go off and recruit again until we had 60 speakers.
Next I think, “Okay by May, I should be publishing the first version of the agenda.” A couple of weeks before that I have to pull all this together, speak to a few people, get help from the speakers and ask for suggestions. They came with some really good ideas for panels and keynotes, and generally got to that point where I was taking the speakers’ advice and stitching it all together. You asked about how you know what it is that people want to hear. Let’s not even take into consideration me being a bit of a bottleneck to deliver the agenda—because you find yourself running the company and then remember, “Oh, I’m still owning the agenda.” Maybe it’s a bit like in a software company, the founder that is the programmer, writes the code. Then after two years, he has to give up programming, reluctantly. I was reluctantly giving up that product of recruiting the speakers and the agenda, after three years.
I found Emma Pearce, who worked at Money 20/20. When I was introduced to Emma, I asked her, “How do you go about doing the agenda?” She just blew my mind. Just did everything that I didn’t do. She told me there’s always six months of research and 100 calls, finding what the hot topics are, really going in-depth. It was all very professional—much more professional than what I was doing. I think a lot of founders can relate to that feeling when they finally hire their first expert. It was a decision-making moment where I had to say, “Okay, wow. I guess now that we’ve done three years of conference, we should be taking a much more professional approach.” That includes doing the research call with previous attendees, with speakers, with the investors, with our target market, our customers. I hadn’t done any research calls. When it occurred to me that that was a necessary step in the business, I was like, “We need to do that. But I don’t have the time to do that, so I need to hire somebody.” Then when I met Emma I thought, “Well, I think you’re the person.” I then went all out trying to recruit Emma. Thankfully, that worked, and she’s been doing a great job.
Scaling a Team
You have the experience of having grown from a small team to a successful company all while expanding the team. How many are you now? Is it more useful to be strict about segmenting people’s roles in teams or, longer-term, can you have people with hands in all the pots?
We are 23 and growing. We’ve got around five in sales, roughly four in marketing. Then we’ve got our event operations teams, four or five people. Obviously, Emma and the content team and so on and the back-office folks and leadership, et cetera. The early days, you need people that can just do everything: sales, marketing, customer support. I think this is not just in events, but in any startup. If you join an early stage, year one startup, be prepared to do everything—that’s what we had. We still, I think, even now at our size have people that would be prepared to do everything. Some people want to do everything, so then we have to tell them to stop doing everything.
Nowadays we’re very much more focused around specialisms. I think it just makes a lot more sense. On the sales team, for instance, we’ve got a head of sales who is the coach. He is building out the sales team by getting SDRs to sell our global series events, focus on new business and account management. Whereas, obviously, year one, it was just me. Actually, year two, it was just me. Then we hired our first salesperson in the third year. Similarly, on the marketing team, we have people specifically devoted to social media, then event marketers, then broader marketers and content marketers. We might be looking at copywriters in the future, as well as those that are specializing around demand generation.
But of course, you can only do that when you have the luxury to have a specialized team—when you’re a certain size, and where there is the business case for it. Previously, the first two years, we had to have a generalist marketer that knew a little bit about Facebook ads but wasn’t an expert, that could manage social, that could write content if they had to and that could write an email and send it out. So that’s where we were. Now, we’re very much hiring down the specialist routes. We’ve scaled from originally just me, to now 23 people in just over three years. This is the fourth year of trading, (we were founded February 2015), and didn’t really trade, actually, the first year. I just came up with the idea, SaaScribe, registered the company, and had zero revenue until 2016. I then regretted registering the company so early, because then I had to do my annual books, which wasn’t very helpful.
Around 2020, we’ll get past 30 people to 40 people. Effectively, we are bootstrapped. I took a little bit of money in 2017 from some investors that invested their own personal funds as more a passion play. It was akin to a very, very small seed round a few years ago. I mean, probably seed rounds these days might be nearer a million. For a company that has venture potential, we don’t really have venture potential because our limit might be a $10 million or $20 million dollar or euro business, which is not going to get VC money. Perhaps thankfully, I don’t know. But we are effectively bootstrapped, funded on revenue, and therefore we need to scale carefully. Try and be as lean as we can and focus on profitability. These are lessons from the last couple of years.
Hot Topics in SaaS
You have unique access to hearing hundreds of speakers every year sharing insights from sales, to marketing, to how to build a team. What big takeaways can you share?
The hot topics. I tell you, one major hot topic this year, and it might not be one that everyone is necessarily expecting, is founder mental health and wellbeing. A lot of people are reading a lot and talking a lot about it. I was having a conversation last year at SaaStock with a guy called Joe Krancki, who was a Frog Capital VC at the time and Mark Organ from Influitive. They were really trying to compel me to bring content around mental health to SaaStock, because running a business and being a founder is super tough. It takes its toll and puts a strain on founders. I really was drawn to the idea, but it was too late to do anything last year. This year, I’ve just seen it everywhere. Big founders talking about it, even at our SaaS Society Founder Retreats, which is a great opportunity for founders. They step out of the office, they’re not with their colleagues, and that allows them to really open up. There’s a bit of catharsis to being around other founders and saying, “Hey, have you encountered this?” Or, “We’re going through this difficult time. What do you think?” That happens a lot.
I’ve seen a lot more content around mental health and wellbeing, this year, as well. Obviously, on the podcast and apps side of things, you have Calm and Headspace that everybody’s name checking. Everyone’s doing meditation and highly recommending it. It’s just come across on a weekly basis, in so many conversations with founders, about how important this is. Just ensure that you’re physically and mentally looking after yourself, because the journey is super difficult. I was having a conversation with a successful SaaS founder just recently who shared, “Look, I suffer from anxiety. I had to do CBT. It’s a real stressful, tough period that I went through. This is something that I really want to talk about, and hopefully talk about at SaaStock so that other people and other founders know that, ‘Actually, you know what? It’s okay.’ You’re not the only one. Everyone’s going through this.” Before, people had to hide the fact from the VCs and from the public. If you’ve raised $80 million, you can’t be seen wavering or having any issues to the public, to your staff or to your VCs.
Graham Cooke mentioned something about having 100 different bosses between all the VCs and the staff, which can put the pressure on to look like everything is fine all the time. In reality, underneath, it’s not. I feel that a lot more people now are just willing to speak about this, so we’ll cover that off a bit. This is a trend in the larger tech space, and it’s certainly something in the SaaS space that we will be supporting and covering at SaaStock. Then, things like product-led growth have a been super hot topic for the last year, maybe more. [Editor’s note: an interview with Nathan Barry, Founder of ConvertKit in the Spring 2019 Issue of SaaS Mag covers the importance of product-led growth in-depth.] This is a really popular topic because of successes of companies like Slack and Zoom (amongst others is). Whilst it is maybe easier than ever to set up a SaaS company, it is not really easy to build and design a company whose product is going to be so excellent that it’s going to sell itself. There are, however, those that have found a formula, that have cracked it. Now there are VCs, like OpenView for instance, that will only really invest in product-led growth type organizations. That’s something that’s often been a hot topic at SaaStock conferences over the last year or so.
Mental Health for Founders
That conversation around mental health has changed quite a bit in the UK specifically, right?
I have seen the change in the UK. I don’t know what it’s like in the US or other parts of the world, but in the UK, everybody’s more open about it right now. I see people writing their LinkedIn posts and they’re saying, “I’m bipolar,” or whatever their specific case, “and I just want to put it out there and discuss it.” I’m reading something every week about founders who have been in the public eye and in my network for years, who are just coming out and saying, “Well, I’ve had suicidal thoughts and I’ve have had all these pressures and it’s been really hard for me to get to the point where I can talk about it, but I feel like it’s going to do more good than harm.” It has just elevated this year, really. There is a new publication called Sifted, which is backed by the FT, and one of their specific topics is mental health. I think it’s really good to see. Personally, I’m not a SaaS founder, but I think it is a topic applicable to all founders. I find it difficult. You have your good days and your good weeks and then you have your bad days and bad weeks. Often, the bad days and bad weeks, you’ll smoke a cigarette or two, and have a drink or whatever. You’ll resort to stuff that you didn’t really want to, but you’re so stressed that you’re like, “That’s it. I’m going to buy a packet of cigarettes,” or whatever your vice.
As I mentioned earlier the first SaaStock lost money. The night before the conference, I think I had a mini panic attack thinking, “How in the world am I going to pay all of this money back?” I didn’t sleep that night I went to the conference. People said, “You look terrible, Alex. Great conference, but you look terrible. You don’t look like you’re enjoying it.” I would respond, “Yeah, not really enjoying it. Because I’m figuring out what I’m going to do with all this debt.” Ultimately, I got through that. You go through these experiences, so I think it can only be a positive thing that people are much more open about the issue. You can learn about it and see what you can do to improve your own mental health. For me personally, things like physical fitness and meditation, the ability to try and switch off from work are super helpful. I’m keen the sessions around mental health that we’ll be doing at SaaStock.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur, founder of your own company?
Sort of. I would say yes, but I then just obviously spent a long period of time in the corporate world. I don’t have the clichéd, almost PR-type story of founding the startup in a basement, but I did have a lemonade stand when I was a kid. As far back as I can remember, I was always interested in building things and making money. I had a tuck shop at school, which I got in trouble for. I think after church on a Sunday, my dad would take me to the sweet shop and I’d buy loads of sweets with his money. Then, I’d go and sell them at school to all the kids, which meant that all the revenue was mine. I never gave it back to my dad. That went well until I got into trouble for it. Then I got a paper round, which I got my dad to do, again. I took the money. Even when I was 16, when I was old enough to work, I got a job at McDonald’s as my first job and I worked there for two years. I guess on the one hand, it taught me the value of hard work. On the other hand, it made me a little bit obese because I was eating McDonald’s morning, noon and night. That wasn’t very good for you, as we see in “SuperSize Me.” So, there was that.
I felt the pressure at that time to go to university because that was the expectation. After university I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I took a year out and went to Brazil. I studied teaching English out there, and then I taught English out there. I lived in Rio for a year, came back and got into my sales career. During my sales career, I was always dreaming about running my own business. Eventually it got to that point in my 30s where I realized I don’t want to be 50 years old, selling somebody else’s software. No offense to some of the people that I saw that were probably perfectly happy and extremely well paid doing that job, but I didn’t want to be that person. Around that time, I began really wanting to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t know what the idea was. I fell into SaaScribe and into SaaStock—it wasn’t a grand plan. I had a side hustle and I was experimenting, then luckily with my first experiment, there was something there. So yes, I always had entrepreneurial ideas. When I had the idea for SaaScribe, I had not only more experience in work and how to sell, but I also had that drive. I remember thinking , “I really must become an entrepreneur, otherwise I’m going to hate my life.” That really pushed me to do it, like an all or nothing. Not only that, but because we got traction early on and people wanted it, I really fell in love with doing what we were doing, so that helped keep me going. I feel I’ve always had the entrepreneurial gene, but it just laid dormant for too long.
When did you quit your job?
I reckon it was August 2015, and I started SaaScribe February 2015. I think it was either quit or be fired, because I was spending a lot of time on SaaScribe. My employers kind of knew Alex wasn’t getting the same results he used to be getting, and were wondering what was going on? I started to get paranoid because I could see my boss and other people subscribing to the newsletter and things like that, and a lot of questions being asked. Obviously, I wasn’t really closing the deals that I was supposed to be doing because I was spending so much time on SaaScribe. They were so cool about it. I was only due two months’ redundancy, but they gave me more. That really helped me as well, because I was bootstrapped. I needed some runway to try and make this work. I only had about six months’ runway in all to get it done. I was obviously, bullish, thinking, “Well, I need to put a deposit down for the venue, which is 10% of the total cost. So that’s not too bad.” That was going to be my biggest thing. “I need to build a website, and actually, you can do that pretty cheaply these days, and then, I’ll start selling.” My initial costs were very low, which was a very appealing aspect of this endeavor. Consider also that I had been building up an audience, this community, for six or seven months at this point, and they were the first people that backed me. They were the early evangelists. Nick Franklin from ChartMogul, for instance, was one of the first interviews I did for SaaScribe in February 2015. I saw that he’d raised some seed money from Christoph Janz and Point Nine. I reached out and said we’d do an interview for SaaScribe. He replied, “Never heard of you. Why should I?” Then I had to follow up. Good job I followed up. I said, “Well, here’s the reasons why I think you should do it.” (Again, selling people on the why.) And he said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” We just did a Q and A over email, I think. Published it. Five months later, Nick was one of the first advertisers on the website. It was a few hundred dollars that he paid me, but actually it was our first bit of revenue.
For the traffic that we were driving, they were getting good results, but still, it’s not a lot of volume. We weren’t going to find our riches by doing advertising. A few months later, I met Nick at Web Summit. I said, “Look, I’m going to do this conference. I’m almost there—I’ve got the venue. Will you sponsor?” He said, “Look, if you do it, I’ll be your first sponsor.” Then I came back to him and was able to say, “Look, all done. All signed. Are you going to sponsor?” And he signed. He was our first gold sponsor. That was even before we published anything online, so he kind of took a bet on us—and on me. That then gave me a few more months’ runway, then the second sponsor, ProfitWell, came on because ChartMogul was sponsoring. It sort of snowballed from there. Laying that groundwork to build those relationships was crucial. I didn’t just cold email people and say, “I’m doing a conference. Will you sponsor?” Because of all the groundwork I laid with SaaScribe and the SaaS Revolution Show, there were relationships built, there was credibility built, and people bought into this community-building, as well as the why and the benefit to the greater good.
Building a Reputation
What can we learn about relationship building from your experience? How can people build their reputation and consequently build their audience because of their reputation?
Good question. You’ve got to be genuine. For instance, I had a friend who saw what I did and was also looking to do something entrepreneurial. He told me, “Oh, well, I know something about such and such subject in fintech, therefore, I’m going to do a conference.” Because obviously, it’s a money-making business model. I advised him on things that I did and spending. It was almost 18 months before the first SaaStock, and said, “Look, I had to build the audience first. Had to curate the content, had to do the podcasts, had to do meetups, go to meetups and build that network.” He wasn’t prepared to do that. He was like, “No, no, I’m just going to do the conference.” I told him that I thought he was making a mistake that way. Sadly, I was proven right. If you’re not prepared to put in the groundwork, and if you genuinely don’t have the passion for community building and really adding value within the space that you’re interested in, then it’s just going to be nigh on impossible. You’ll give up.
I’ve seen so many communities being built around SaaS, both online and offline. If the purpose has been more about making money for a particular line of business for a marketing agency or whatever else, when it’s not growing as fast as they like, it just stops and that community goes away. For me, it has just been a passion. I had good timing on it as well, can’t deny that, but I will be seeing it through for the long haul. The SaaS Revolution podcast has been going for four years now. Every week, four years. You’ve got to be prepared to do that. You can’t really build a community if you’re just thinking short term. You’ve got to be in it for the distance. You’ve got to be genuine. You’ve got to be passionate. Otherwise if you’re not passionate, you’re not going to make it into year four. Maybe in year four is when it will start to take off. In order to find out, you’ve just got to keep going.
How to Know Whether to Give Up
Let’s talk about that dwindling period when people start to wonder whether they should give up. It’s a common anecdote among founders to say, “I almost gave up and then I didn’t, then that’s when it picked up.” I’m tentative to say this, but it’s almost like when you start feeling like giving up is exactly when you really shouldn’t, if you have traction.
Absolutely. It’s probably across all different types of startups. You know in SaaS they talk about the slow SaaS ramp of death where for maybe a couple of years, you’re just grinding, and you’ve got a bit of traction. You don’t know if you’ve got product-market fit or not. “Have I got it? Yes, I’ve got it! No, I haven’t got it! It’s difficult, but you keep going and you change a few things and keep going. You have to lay people off, but then you don’t pay yourself anything and you keep going. Then eventually, the successful ones are the ones that don’t give up. They’re not crazy. Sometimes you can flog a dead horse, of course, but the ones that don’t give up tend to get there. There are a couple of bootstrappers that I know that I can call out here. For instance, Emeric Ernoult from Agorapulse. He’s been to all the SaaStocks. Three, four years ago—he might kill me for this, I might get it wrong—they were just doing, I think, a couple hundred thousand ARR. It took them something like five or six years to get to that point. They were a team of four or five, and he didn’t pay himself for a long time. He had to go back to practicing as a lawyer to get some money, and just carried on.
Fast forward to today, I think they’ve just gone past $10 million ARR. There’s also Peter Coppinger, from Teamwork. com. Again, they were on that slow SaaS ramp of death for years, just trying to get to a few hundred thousand in ARR. Then, they bought the Teamwork.com domain. Now they’re north of $30 million ARR. But they’re 13 years down the line, so it’s a long game. They were persistent, they were tenacious. They didn’t give up. I feel, perhaps, maybe too many people might just give up too soon. But if they did, maybe they did for the right reason, because maybe it’s not for them. It’s going to be difficult whether you’re at $200,000 or two million. If you’re not that type of person, if you can’t stomach it, if you don’t have the resilience for that, not prepared to go the distance, then you’re not going to get to the $10 million like Emeric did, or $30 million like Peter has. You’ve got to be in it.
Bootstrapping a Business
Do you think there is anything SaaS founders can learn about scaling a bootstrapped SaaS business from the lessons that come from scaling a bootstrapped events business? Your profit and loss statements are certainly more complicated than a SaaS business’.
It’s funny. Sometimes I wish that I had a SaaS business instead of an events business, because once you get that recurring revenue in, you can go on holiday and it’s still coming in. Not to make light of it, because it’s really hard to get to that point where you’ve got $5 million ARR coming in. But to answer the question, there is an absolutely growing trend of people bootstrapping, with people and even VCs publicly saying, “We don’t think that you should take VC money if you don’t have to.” I’m seeing a lot more of that in the space. At SaaStock, we have a lot of VCs that come to the conference. We will have about 400 this year, we had 300 last year. They’re all looking to invest in the next Intercoms and Qubits and whatnot. A lot of money is raised on the back of it. We also do get a lot of bootstrappers, and we’re big fans of bootstrapping.
I think, ultimately, if you don’t have to raise money, and if you don’t have to give away equity and sell off parts of your business and dilute your shares, why would you? Really? The landscape has changed significantly from 2015 to 2019. In 2015, it was like the only way you can build a business was by getting venture capital. The first thing everyone was looking to do as a startup was raise VC money. However, sometimes that’s not the first thing that you should be doing. Compare our business to a SaaS company. The first thing someone thinks about when they start a SaaS company is how to raise venture capital, not the business, the product and selling. Because I knew venture capital was not an option for my business, the first thing that I had to do was sell. Therefore, I had to focus on getting customers and revenue. That’s what I did. That approach allowed me to build a business that was powered by revenue and powered by customers. It can be done. Too many people focus on raising money. It takes you away from your company. It takes away from product. I don’t know the stats, but imagine how many first-year companies have died or shuttered because they were focused on trying to raise money. They got 1,000 “nos” and ultimately didn’t raise money. It’s like, “Sorry, we had a great idea. But we didn’t raise any money so we’ll kill it, and go onto the next one.” If you want to be a unicorn, you probably need to raise money. But how about getting some customers first?
Get some money and see if you can sustain it, see if you can bootstrap. We like to promote that message. Then if you want to raise VC money, great. That’s your option. The people that raise money, or that should raise money, are the ones that want to build the $100 million ARR business. They want to build a unicorn. If you don’t want to do that, think twice before raising.
What is a successful SaaStock for you, Alex? How do you know a conference has been a success?
It’s been a success if I see a lot of happy faces. I have been at events when not everyone’s happy. Generally, at our Dublin event, I always tend to feel that we’ve over-delivered. That has always been our goal: to delight people. We always have a few surprises in there. Customer delight is a common topic in SaaS, too. I want to see customer delight. Even before the conference, I want to see people talking about it in such an excited state. At the conference, everybody’s happy. I have people coming up to me and the team saying, “Oh this is great” and “It’s much better than some of those other competitive conferences.” I love the fact that it’s so international. SaaS is truly global, and SaaStock is truly global. Just bringing in all of these people together, from Chennai to San Francisco and Sydney to São Paulo, together at SaaStock, and knowing we have facilitated that is the real magic for me.
Ideally, everybody’s had a good time, both day and night. We do the surveys at the end, but we also see the feedback on social. People are on the plane and they’re sad to go, and they’re sad to cut off their wristbands and all this stuff. Seeing that feels like, “Wow, we actually built something great—something that really matters and impacts people.” I love seeing post-SaaStock tweets by founders saying, “We’ve learned more in two days at SaaStock than we have in a whole year of running my business.” It’s exactly that: the reason why we do it. Don’t get me wrong, I never thought at the outset that’s the impact that we would have. Now I know that’s the impact that it can be, that’s what we aim for. If we get that then, yeah, I’m happy. We see people accomplish things like raise money from it, get new customers from it, new best friends, potential exits or whatever it may be. It’s great to be a big part of the SaaS ecosystem, and I think that’s what we have become.
It is pretty incredible when you think about it, because you have turned competitors into community.
Yes, you’re right. We had about six or seven SaaS billing platforms at SaaStock last year, and probably the same again this year. It is becoming very communal to where we even see people working together to build integrations. Generally, in SaaS, that’s been my experience. Competitors are open, they’re friendly. Certainly, it seems that way. I’m not sure about Drift and Intercom, but you know.
Why Attend a SaaS Conference?
We’ll let them battle that one out. I think you are right thought, that it kind of forces people to look each other in the eye and realize that there’s enough to go around and not everyone needs to have all of the market share. Someone else’s product may work best for someone else, and I think that is kind of a weird thing for us to admit to ourselves.
Generally, though, why should someone working in SaaS go to SaaStock?
If you are invested in growing your SaaS business, I think you should come to SaaStock. Whatever stage you are in, we will have content that is geared towards you. We have a startup program with great mentors which helps you understand how to raise money, how to deal with the pre-revenue stage. We’ve got a stage of content from zero to $10 million plus. I think some of the best things, though, come from just being in the center of SaaS for a couple of days. It’s not quite the whole world of SaaS in Dublin for a couple of days, but a lot of the key players, VCs, founders and influencers are. There’s a great opportunity to make connections that matter that could actually really impact your business.
I also think it’s important for people to step outside of the office, get out and attend events like SaaStock so that they can have serendipitous conversations or just meet people and try to think differently. Sometimes if you’re just stuck in the office and set in your ways, or you think you know what you’re doing, you might stagnate. In my view there is nothing greater than getting together with a bunch of people and shooting the breeze about building a SaaS company. It might just open your perspectives to fresh ideas. Apparently, there have been trade shows and conferences for hundreds of years. It’s one of the oldest, industries, therefore, and I think there’s something in it. It’s just good to get out of the office, have a look at: What are your competitors are doing? What are other leading SaaS companies doing that you might not be doing? What are the ways to hire people? What other talent is there? Also, if you’re just having a hard time at work and want to have a bit of fun then there’s probably no better place to be than Dublin in October.
Why did you guys choose Dublin?
There were several reasons. I think one of the top reasons was probably cost, but it wasn’t the only one. I was between London and Dublin. London, perhaps, should have been the first choice. As a bootstrapped founder, I found it quite expensive. You got more bang for your buck in Dublin. Having been to conferences in London, I found that people attend and then just leave, disappear into London because it’s so big. Whereas in Dublin, you just get a much better vibe because the conference almost takes over the city, and you are bumping into people day and night. It’s a great international hub as well—a lot of great SaaS companies there. The people are also super friendly, and it’s such a fun city.
Do you know how many countries people come from to come to SaaStock?
Between 45 and 50. We might cross 50 this year, I have seen some new ones. Obviously people are coming from across Asia, South Korea, North Africa, the Middle East, Latin America. The US is one of our top markets. It’s super global which is so great to see because the first year when it started, I just thought it was a European SaaS conference. People just started buying tickets from New Zealand and whatnot and I was like, “Wow. Somebody’s going to come all the way from New Zealand to our conference? That’s crazy.” It just showed, certainly at the time and definitely still today, that there is this need for SaaS conferences within this context. People to come together and just learn, “Hey, I’ve got this business and it’s one million ARR and I want to take it further, but I’m struggling. Here’s a conference offering a lot of content there that might be able to help me, with a lot of other people there that I want to get to meet and learn from, so why not get on a plane and fly 24 hours to spend a couple of days there, and really see if that can help?” I’m glad to be able to offer that to people. I think we’re lucky to be in such a niche industry that’s growing very fast.
What is next for SaaStock? How do you want to see it evolve?
This year, we have taken SaaStock across the world in five different continents. That’s been great. We were the first in Latin America, where there’s a great SaaS ecosystem that was crying out for a conference like ours, so it’s great to be there to give the market and people something that they wanted. The same in Asia and Australia. I think next year there will be very much a focus on building out those conferences and making them a little bit bigger and better. We’ll do SaaStock in the US, SaaStock LatAm, SaaStock Asia, SaaStock Australasia, and of course the main one in Dublin, the flagship. The new product, or one of our first new products that we have rolled out this year is SaaStock Local. Effectively, this is bringing together the SaaS community across cities, across the globe. We’re looking to scale that out. Our goal was to have 20 cities launched by the end of this year. I think we’ll easily surpass that. We’ve been running SaaStock Locals in Boston, New York, San Francisco, but also places like Chennai, Bangalore, Kiev, Helsinki, Barcelona, London, Dublin, and Australia is coming soon. We are powering the spreading of SaaS communities all across the globe, which is great to see.
Beyond that, there are so many ideas that everybody has within the company, and that I have around various different initiatives. Time will tell what new products we put out or whether we will do a fund, or start an accelerator of some sort. I think for the moment, we will keep the focus on the conferences, overdelivering for the customers, the globalization of SaaStock next year and on the SaaStock Local rollout. Beyond that, we’ll look to see what the future holds.