Building a Better SaaS Company: 3 Non-technical Assets for Success
March 22, 2019
If you asked most people to name the top three attributes of a successful SaaS company, they would probably include things like a killer product, strong technical expertise and a solid product-market fit. While all those are without question key elements of SaaS success, they are only a few pieces in a complex puzzle. There are many pivotal, structural and operational attributes that people tend to overlook.
I am a self-proclaimed tech geek who loves the hands-on side of developing software products, and also someone who likes to use both sides of her brain. At Abstract, where I am the CRO, I have the chance to do just that. Our small-but-passionate company has taken on the daunting task of redesigning the design workflow process. Our common infrastructure supports today’s design workflow, solves the universal problem of version control, and makes the design process more accessible across all the functional teams within an organization.
While our product solves a very real problem for our customers, Abstract has some other, less tangible assets that play a key role in our success: our remote structure, our highly collaborative and well-documented process and our deep commitment to inclusion and diversity.
Remote Company Structure—An Unexpected Way to Drive Collaboration
This may sound intuitive, but I believe that being such a remote-friendly company is a big part of what makes Abstract so unique in its ability to collaborate. Approximately 60% of our employees are remote, so getting things done means that we’ve had to build a very strong culture and develop extraordinarily good communication skills.
For any remote organization to succeed, the culture has to be instilled from the top down. Our amazing founders are very dedicated to making the remote model work because it’s an intrinsic part of our mission to build a truly diverse and inclusive company (more on that below). Their commitment means that our entire way of working together has been designed to support a remote approach.
For example, we recently instituted a weekly “all-hands” meeting that takes place every Friday. It’s not mandatory, but it’s on everyone’s calendar, and most people attend. Because we’ve grown so much, there are now too many of us for this meeting to cover everything that’s going on, even at a high level. Instead, we use it as a way to touch base with the full team about who’s new to the company and what big ideas and projects are going on. We also include a deep dive on one topic. It’s a great opportunity to check in and get some virtual facetime.
We also do in-person offsite meetings twice a year when the whole company meets in a remote location. This gives us a chance to spend some time with new teammates and reconnect with others. And throughout the year we do a number of ad hoc in-person meetings that bring specific executive teams and team leads together to work on distinct projects. We’ve made sure that we have the budgets and flexibility to make in-person working sessions possible when that makes the most sense.
And then there are the small, day-to-day things we do to support our remote culture. For instance, if we’re holding a meeting that includes five people from our corporate headquarters and three remote team members, instead of using a single camera, each person attending from corporate opens their laptop and turns on their own camera so they can be part of a group video chat. It may seem like a small thing, but it makes a big difference in being able to see each person as an individual and really connect and collaborate well.
Another example of how well we’re able to communicate and drive results even though we’re not all working in the same office is our growth team. That team was launched when a new hire joined the marketing team and announced he was going to build a growth function. He grabbed someone from design and someone from engineering and then this small team quickly iterated with small product changes and managed to increase our conversion rates by approximately 20%.
Process—A Secret Weapon for the Growing Company
The growth team is also a great example of our overall approach to running projects and solving problems. We allow for a lot of independence while, at the same time, providing our teams with well-defined processes and the right tools. We’re not big on making people ask for permission. We trust them to know what needs to be done and to do it. Then, we can all look at the results and see if project goals were met.
Ensuring that each project has representation from all teams is another big area of focus for us. In a highly collaborative company like ours, everything is connected and what we do in one department will have repercussions in every other department. Every project we run has a kickoff meeting and team members from each function involved attend. It’s important to note, however, that while everyone is involved, there is always one clear project lead who owns the results of the effort. We use the DACI model to define collaborators versus people who just need to be kept in the loop.
Once a project has been kicked off, our tactical project management tools and processes kick in. For each project, we have a detailed project plan, a Slack channel, and an Asana project. We also ensure that from start to finish, everyone has plenty of chances to ask questions and feels free to be open and honest at every stage of the process.
This attention to process is critical for a growing company. We’re hiring like crazy right now, so onboarding new hires quickly and effectively is very important. We need to bring them up to speed on projects quickly: the goals, the deadlines, the team, what’s already been done, what’s happening now and what’s coming next. Much like the way we’ve built Abstract to capture the evolution of a design project in a way that’s easy to document and retrace, our internal project process allows everyone on the team to instantly see all the history on a project and jump right in.
Diversity and Inclusion—The Way to Build a Better, Stronger Company
The last thing I want to mention is probably the most important, and that’s Abstract’s incredible commitment to building a truly diverse and inclusive company. From very early on, our founders have said that they don’t just want to build a great product that is inclusive, they want to build a company culture that is diverse and inclusive from the ground up.
In a company of 65 people, we have built out a people team which includes a team of three in-house recruiters. Their mission is to make sure we’re finding the right people, no matter where they are. Our remote culture plays an important role in this effort by enabling us to consider a much broader range of job candidates. It may take a little more time and effort to find the right people, but we know the end result will be better – for the company, for the product, and ultimately, for our customers.
Today two-thirds of our senior leadership and half of our investor board identify as women, 24% of our people identify as African American or Latinx, and 14% of our people are LGBTQ+. We are proactively working to help decolonize Silicon Valley and take responsibility for helping to change the way our systems—professional, social, and economic—are built. The beautiful thing about this is that it’s a win-win for everyone. Research has proven that teams that include under-represented groups outperform homogenous teams and—on average—inclusive teams have a better understanding of their customers, ship two more products annually and are better at recruiting and retaining talent. Also, it’s simply the right thing to do.
The Kind of Success You Achieve Depends on How You Pursue Success
While it’s a given that you have to have a great product, find your product-market fit, and execute an effective go-to-market strategy, there’s more than just tech and marketing that goes into building a worthy SaaS company. You have to do what you do with intention and with purpose. You have to take the time to figure out what really works and then nail all the details of your systems. And you have to think about what matters most and not be afraid to base your decisions on doing the right thing.