Marketing agency owner. Business and startup advisor. Software developer and business process automation specialist. Professional problem-solver.
Your situation is unique and I don't know all the details, so I'll give you some basic strategies that have worked for other businesses like yours.
- Optimize what works. You've been doing something right to get to 200 members already. Write down and analyze your existing sales systems, plug the leaks, and dial up the things that are working.
- Create referral systems. Incentivize your existing clients to refer their friends, and reward them (with free training sessions, nutritional supplements, gift certificates for a juice bar, etc.) for bringing you new clients.
- Partnerships / joint-ventures: What do your existing clients (or the kind of clients you want to attract) have in common? What other businesses do they patronize? Can you partner with those businesses to get them to refer people to you?
For example, I've lived in several apartment communities that had on-site gyms. The building, in partnership with a local personal trainer, offered a free training session to every new resident.
- Market education: Offer free online or in-person seminars on exercise, nutrition, fat loss, muscle gain, healthy living, whatever your clients are really interested in. Teach people something they didn't know, and position yourself / your company as experts. You can do these for free, or even charge for them. At the end, make a special offer to the attendees to sign up for training.
- Public relations: Do a free "boot camp" series in a local public park. Get the word out in local publications and online.
- Advertising: Build a landing page optimized to get visitors to sign up for training/consultation/free education. Run banner ads or AdWords targeted at your local market and drive traffic to that page.
- SEO / social media: Publish content online that's interesting to people in your market. Use it to drive traffic to specific offers that get people into your sales funnel.
I'm going to do a sales optimization case study soon ... get in touch and I'll be happy to get some more details about your particular business and talk about all this with you in more depth.
This really depends on your target audience and your overall sales / growth strategy.
Without knowing the specifics of your business I can't give specific advice (feel free to contact me for a call), but I can give some general guidance.
If you're selling to established businesses, don't go freemium. Businesses spend money to make money, and if they have a problem that needs to be solved, they're used to spending money to solve it. A freemium model in this case is probably just going to attract pathological customers, and not the good, well-paying, easy-to-work-with clients that you want.
On the other hand, if you are targeting smaller businesses that you hope will "grow into" a paid plan, a freemium strategy might work.
It could also work if you are targeting corporate workers who have no budget authority, but who might be able to convince their boss to pay for the product if they can demonstrate results using your free version.
Go out and talk to the customers you're building this with and get a sense for what they're willing to pay for, or what their purchasing authority is and what it would take to get budget for your product.
If you're not building this with customers already onboard and helping you guide its development, you are much less likely to be successful. Go out and find some customers, validate your business model by pre-selling the product, and take their feedback into account as you build and market it.
Focus on sales, even if the product doesn't exist yet.
Do you enjoy selling this product?
Do you understand who the market is?
Do people want to buy it?
Do they want to buy it even if you haven't created it yet?
Will they give you money for it now even if it won't be ready for a few months?
Set some targets for yourself. For example, commit to calling at least 100 prospective customers and trying to sell the product before you give up on the idea, and don't move forward until at least 6 people have agreed to buy it (or paid in advance).
(Disclaimer: The following is not tax or legal advice, and I am not your attorney or your CPA. Consult with your own professional counsel before making a decision.)
Unfortunately, California has an $800 "minimum franchise tax" fee that every LLC or corporation doing business in California must pay, regardless of where they are incorporated.
As far as the State of California is concerned, if any of an LLC's or corporation's owners live in the state, the company must be registered there and pay the $800 annual fee.
If you plan to move away from CA soon, it's probably worth it to file in someplace like Nevada, New Mexico, or Wyoming where filing fees are lower and out-of-state (or in the case of Nevada, also in-state) companies pay no state tax. My understanding is that companies incorporated in California must pay CA state tax even if the business's operations are elsewhere. If in doubt, ask your accountant or your attorney about this.
If you plan to continue living in California for the foreseeable future, you should probably form your company there instead of paying fees and/or taxes to two states. The one exception is if you are planning to take venture capital funding soon, in which case it may save you some money and hassle to form a Delaware corporation (but you will have to pay both Delaware and California filing fees and a Delaware registered agent).
If you aren't planning to take VC money soon, go ahead and form a California LLC. If you're near Sacramento, you can actually go to the Secretary of State's office and get the paperwork processed while-you-wait.
If I recall correctly, you'll need to file Articles of Incorporation and an initial List of Members. This will cost you several hundred dollars. If you are good with paperwork, just go online to the CA Secretary of State's website and get the necessary forms and file them yourself. If you're not good with paperwork and legal stuff, hire an attorney to do this for you.
Once your LLC paperwork is filed, you can apply online to the IRS for an EIN. With that and your LLC papers, you can get a business checking account.
When your LLC is formed, it defaults to "pass-through" tax treatment. Your LLC will not file a return with the IRS. The business's profit or loss will be reflected on your individual tax return Schedule C.
Talk to your accountant about whether (and when) you should elect S Corporation or C Corporation tax treatment for your LLC. When you're making a lot of money, this can save you thousands of dollars a year in taxes. Or it can cost you hundreds of dollars in unnecessary tax prep fees. So get some good advice and run the numbers.
Be aware that many municipalities have a local business license / tax scheme, and if you're operating your business out of your home you may need to get into compliance with this. Some cities will get tax data from the State for anyone in town who files IRS Schedule C and send them a hefty estimated tax bill if they aren't registered as a business.
Congrats on getting your SaaS business off the ground. I advise SaaS businesses on how to increase their sales and recurring revenue, so get in touch if you'd like any help with that.
I'm a product developer, startup veteran, and advisor to SaaS companies.
Hopefully you've been already developing this new product with input from your existing customers, letting them beta test it and give feedback.
(If not, my advice is to STOP immediately and get enough pilot customers involved to be sure that you're delivering something really valuable to them, that works the way they expect it to work, is easy to understand and get started with, etc.. The last thing you want is to do a big splashy launch of a product that is D.O.A. because you built what you assumed the customers wanted instead of they actually demonstrated that they wanted.)
OK, so let's assume that you've got customers in the loop.
Interview the heck out of them.
Really understand how they use the product, why they use the product, what makes it valuable to them, what they can do with it that they couldn't do before, etc.
If the product's not done enough for them to be best testing it yet and getting results, at least get some insights into how they see themselves getting results from it. How does it/will it change their lives?
As you do this, be on the lookout for things that really resonate. Emotional language, for example. "It's such a relief that I don't have to worry about sending invoices manually anymore." (or whatever pain it is that your software solves)
Also look for (and try to elicit) specific result statements: "This new software saves me [or is going to save me] 15 hours a week. Now I can spend that time where I really want to, with my kids ( ... my cat ... my golf buddies ... )"
You're doing this for three reasons: 1) This stuff makes for phenomenal testimonials; 2) it helps you come up with great ideas for pre-launch content; and 3) it generates *PURE SOLD GOLD* you'll use in writing the copy for your launch offer.
OK, launch mechanics. There are people who teach huge long expensive courses on this stuff. I'll give you the Cliff's notes.
While I haven't personally run a major product launch, I have been trained in the strategy and am very familiar with it.
- Plan your launch period in advance. You might want to do a pre-launch sequence that lasts 1, 2, even 3 months depending on the magnitude of your product and how much effort you're willing to put into creating content for the launch.
- Create some teaser content of interest to your customers who might want to buy this product. Offer to teach them something, or offer to give them a sneak-peak behind-the-scenes of your new product.
- Send an enticing offer for this content out to your list. Get people who are interested in this content to sign up for it. This creates your launch email list.
- Send your launch list weekly updates: development milestones, sneak-peak screenshots, videos, educational material, interviews with/testimonials from beta users, and so on.
- You're not trying to sell here yet (not hard sell at least). Drop some hints that there is going to be a special offer when the product launches, just for special loyal customers like them.
- Create at least three videos on topics that are really, really interesting to your prospective customers... not necessarily about your new product itself, but teach them about what they can achieve with it, or what others have achieved with it already. As you publish these videos, send the link out to your launch list.
- Also send out an offer to see these videos to your main list, to entice more people to sign up for your launch list.
- As you get closer to launch time, keep sending frequent updates to the pre-launch list, and send another email out to your main list to let them know that the product is launching soon, and that if they're interested in the special one-time-only launch pricing, they need to sign up for the "early bird list" (your launch list).
- Send out a 24-hour notice that the launch is going to happen soon, and the launch pricing will only be available for a limited time (potentially, to a limited number of customers ... to increase scarcity and urgency).
- I recommend that even if you plan to open the product up to all your customers that at launch time you limit it to a smaller number. This makes the inevitable post-launch gremlins less painful to deal with because you have fewer customers, and it motivates people to buy because they fear that they'll lose the opportunity to do so. You can open the product up to more people later... the delay will result in pent-up demand and easier sales.
- Start the launch. Tell your early-bird launch list a few hours early, then tell your main list. Direct them to a web page with a video and long-form sales copy of your launch offer.
- Send out 2-day, 1-day, 12-hour, etc. notices that the launch is ending soon and reminding people what they're missing out on if they don't act now. If you're offering a limited number of spots, tell people what percentage has already sold out. Remind people that if they're "on the fence" about this, that this is the time to make a decision.
- Send out an email letting people know that the launch is over and thanking them for their support and their vote of confidence. Tell the people who didn't buy (or didn't get in) that you'll let them know that the product will be opening up for new registrations some time in the future. (You may get people sending you emails begging to be let in at this point, if your product is desirable and your marketing was executed well.)
And, of course, you don't just have to promote your launch content to your existing customer list ... you can post it to social media (and encourage your customers to do so) to attract brand new customers into your world.
If you'd like to go into more detail about launch planning for your specific product and market, I'd be happy to jump on a call and talk about ways to make this work for you.
There's no one best way to improve marketing in every situation. These are some of the things I would do with a new client who wanted to increase B2B sales:
- Map out the business's current sales and marketing systems. Put metrics in place. Find out what is working and what isn't working.
- Look closely at the systems that are working right now to see if they can be optimized. For example, if sales are mostly automated using SEO/SEM, landing pages, self-service sale, etc., typically small improvements in ad copy, landing page design, landing page copy, and sign-up flow can achieve significant increases in conversion.
- Interview customers to understand their current process for identifying deciding they want your kind of your product, finding vendors, evaluating options, etc.. Dig deep and really understand their needs.
- Develop a marketing strategy that provides an education of interest to all prospective customers in the market, not just those who are ready to buy now. Put systems in place for ongoing market education and building a list of people who are interested in what the company has to say. Develop a strategy for converting these interested people into customers when they time is right for them.
- Implement systems to get ongoing feedback from prospects and customers, e.g. live chat on the website, automatic follow-up emails, scheduled phone check-ins.
- From prospect and customer feedback, along with staff interviews, identify customer service practices that are harming the company's reputation, or not doing enough to promote the company. Correct these problems with improved corporate messaging and staff training.
- Based on the market, implement one or more new sales / marketing channels that are appropriate, e.g. direct sales, public relations, advertising in different media.
- For a business with salespeople (outbound or inbound), examine current sales practices and training to identify weaknesses. Create new training to correct them.
I'm very happy to do a call if you'd like to talk in detail about some specific ways to improve the online marketing of your particular B2B business.
I'm a small-time investor and have been working for and with startups for 13 years.
The time to take seed capital is:
- When you've proven demand for your product by making sales.
- When you have at least one repeatable, predictable, and profitable system in place for selling your product.
- When taking an equity investment would let you grow the company faster than the other means that might be at your disposal: bootstrapping, debt financing, organic growth, joint ventures, etc.
There's a trade-off. You want to get the idea validated up-front and get as far as possible as you can on your own, but not spend so much time doing this with meager resources that the opportunity passes you by.
You don't want to give away the whole company to your investor, but you also don't want to stunt your growth and give up huge potential profits just because you were holding out for slightly better terms.
The better your sales, and sales growth, the better the valuation you'll be able to negotiate.
A great idea and a proof-of-concept alone are worth basically nothing.
A company with sales is worth more.
A company with sales growth is worth even more.
A company with month-over-month sales growth, ongoing relationships with customers who repurchase, and steady-state profitability is worth *much, much* more.
(Steady-state profitability means that if the company's number of customers stays the same, the business operations turn a profit. Often, early-stage companies that have a recurring-revenue business model will spend more to acquire a new customer than they earn from the first sale; the cost of acquisition is amortized over the lifetime of the customer. This is because they want to grow their recurring-revenue base and increase future profits at the expense of short-term negative cash-flow.)
All that being said, if you think you will need venture capital funding in the future, you should start looking for it long before you're going to need it.
Have a "Plan B" in place, too. Don't get stuck with your back up against a wall, hoping and praying that your seed round will close before you start bouncing checks. If your investor knows you're going to go bankrupt without the investment, they have a lot of leverage for getting very favorable terms!
There are three ways to grow any business:
1. Increase number of clients
2. Increase average sale amount
3. Increase frequency of sales
If your company is already fully booked, I suggest that you start by simply raising your prices. You might lose some clients, but usually when a business raises prices, the clients they lose are the most troublesome ones. Refocus sales & marketing efforts on attracting higher-end clients or doing more work for your best existing clients.
You can also typically boost your short-term bookings by pre-announcing the price hike and get some potential clients "off the fence" with an offer to sign now at the old rate.
To avoid adding unnecessary overhead as the company grows, dedicate some time to building strong, repeatable systems and to automating processes where possible. The most important place to do this is in your sales systems, so that your revenues become predictable and you can scale them at-will by adjusting your sales & marketing expenditure.
If your sales systems are already pretty solid and you want to boost your production capacity to keep up, again look to systematize and automate as much as possible. Break the whole production process down into steps: sale, concept, script, taping, editing, post-production, review, delivery, collecting payment, and so on.
Write down each logical step, and then write down all of the physical actions that need to take place to get the desired result.
Who can perform each of those actions?
Is it something that could be partially or fully automated with software (e.g. project planning)?
Something that you could outsource (e.g. video editing, bookkeeping)?
Or is it something that is your "secret sauce" or otherwise requires specialized in-house talent (e.g. creative work, executive management)?
By really getting down to exactly what roles must be performed by your employees, you can calculate how many employees you're going to need in a given role, for a given workload. Now you have a hiring plan.
A highly-scalable organization will focus on doing what they do best, while automating, outsourcing, or eliminating as much as possible of the other work involved in performing their business.
OK, last topic: Culture. People much smarter than me have written entire books on this topic. The best advice in regards to culture and employees largely boils down to:
1) Be *intentional* about creating the company culture. Decide up front what you will value as a company, and communicate this throughout the organization.
2) People REspect what you INspect. Trust your people, but verify. For example, if your organization is highly customer-service oriented, then make darned sure that your clients feel like they were treated just as you expected that they would be treated. Call them up personally. Make sure your employees are aware that you're doing this.
3) A new hire's indoctrination into the company culture begins the moment they first enter your world, and first impressions matter. Do your website, interview and hiring process, and new-hire orientation all reflect your intended company culture perfectly? Or does a new-hire get mixed messages because current standard practices or employee behavior is inconsistent with your stated values?
4) Hire people based on whether they are a cultural fit. Have each candidate interviewed independently by multiple people, all of whom are evaluating that person on cultural fit. If you're small enough, have the entire company interview them. If you hire someone who doesn't fit your culture, you have just eroded it.
5) People who share your company values almost certainly associate with other people who share those values. Leverage their networks to find great candidates. Even if they're not looking to make a move, or you're not hiring, or not hiring for a position they could fill, make the connection anyway, and keep in touch. The easiest way to fill a job in the future is when you already have a list of pre-qualified people who'd love to work for you.
6) The only way someone should be able to get fired is by violating the norms of your company culture. And if someone does commit a serious violation, they need to be let go--immediately.
And here's one last strategy that can increase your profits without taking on much of any extra overhead at all:
Think about what else your clients need—even things that you can't offer them directly. You already have a relationship with them, and if you're doing things right, it's a *trusted* relationship.
Figure out what they need, find a partner who can deliver that for them, and then make an arrangement where you sell those products or services to your client and have them fulfilled by your joint-venture partner. They do all the work, your client gets what they need, and you and the JV partner split the revenue.
For example, are your clients hiring you to produce videos for marketing purposes on the web? Maybe they need help with their website? Or with getting traffic to the videos on YouTube? Partner with a web marketing agency. You can even work this both ways, so that they send their high-end clients to you when they need a video produced.
I hope I covered that as best I could without knowing the specifics of your business. If you have questions that I could answer for you on these topics, I'm happy to set up a call.