Why One SaaS Startup is Baring It All (and Maybe You Should, Too)

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For many SaaS founders, metrics like MRR, user growth, and churn are closely guarded secrets. So why is Groove founder and CEO Alex Turnbull going all-in on transparency — and why is it working? 

 

When Groove founder and CEO Alex Turnbull published a post for his startup’s blog recently, the serial entrepreneur did what most great entrepreneurs do — he took a calculated risk.

In a post titled, “A SaaS Startup’s Journey to $100,000 a Month,” Turnbull published a manifesto that gave readers a shockingly transparent view of Groove’s inner workings. It shared the SaaS and eCommerce customer support company’s current monthly recurring revenue (MRR) and user growth, and promised to publish future posts that share such hard-earned lessons as why he passed on a $5 million VC raise and how Groove wasted $50,000 by designing the wrong website.

In an age where business blogs can be somewhat sterile and trite, the post was a breath of fresh air. And Turnbull says it was just the beginning of a series of transparent content that will give readers a rare uncensored view from the driver’s seat and invite them along for the ride that is Groove’s growth.

“I knew it was risky to bare it all and show everyone the good, bad, and ugly of our business, but I thought there was value in doing that for our prospective users,” Turnbull says. “I wanted to say, ‘Hey, here we are. This is what we’re all about, this is why we show up to work everyday, this is what we’re trying to do, and here’s what you can learn from our journey.’ Our target users can relate to what we’re trying to accomplish and that transparency aligns with our brand, so why not share that experience with them?”

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So far, readers seem to be responding to Groove’s approach.

Turnbull published his post a week ago and, to date, it has received nearly 80 comments, 6,000 unique visitors, 1,000 blog subscribers, and countless Tweets and Retweets.

“Finding an audience is just the first step in creating a successful content or brand strategy. Now it’s game time.”

alex turnbull

Alex Turnbull, Founder and CEO of Groove

“I had no idea that the post would have that kind of impact,” Turnbull admits. “I just made an assumption that readers would respond to something new and fresh and transparent. That’s really what running a startup is all about, right? You make assumptions, take risks, see what happens, and then respond accordingly.”

Turnbull plans to publish a follow-up post this week, but he says the initial response has given him confidence that the risk of transparency is well worth the potential reward. And he’s not the only SaaS entrepreneur who feels that way.

In mid-September, social media sharing app Buffer published a post about its journey from 0 to 1 million users that revealed the company’s current annual revenue and user count, and highlighted the myriad challenges the SaaS company has faced along the way. Since then, the post has been tweeted nearly 1,000 times and received more than 100 comments.

Meanwhile, Moz co-founder and CEO Rand Fishkin has touted transparency since founding his business in 2004. Fishkin, in fact, has been known to write about everything from his policy for firing employees to his company’s failed attempt to raise a $24 million round of venture financing.

“I certainly won’t claim to be the first person to think that transparency is valuable in blogging,” Turnbull says. “But I think our experience is further evidence that it can help you standout from much of the meaningless noise that companies publish today.”

In fact, thanks to the blog series, Turnbull says Groove’s audience now associates the company’s brand with honesty, helpfulness, and approachability — three attributes that certainly align with Groove’s promise to help companies better manage their customer support functions.

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Is Transparency Sustainable as a SaaS Company Grows?

Of course, the challenge now for Groove — and other SaaS startups that publish transparent content — is to continue delivering content that meets or exceeds the quality of the content that originally attracted an audience.

“Finding an audience is just the first step in creating a successful content or brand strategy,” Turnbull says. “Now it’s game time. We have to continue producing engaging, authentic, and transparent content, or people will stop coming to our blog. In a sense, we’ve opened the door. Now we have to find a way to encourage people to continue stepping through it.”

For growing SaaS companies, that can be challenging for many reasons. Not the least of which being a finite well of content ideas to draw from and an evolving team of stakeholders (employees, investors, etc.) who may or may not be as comfortable with transparency as you are.

The way to work around that issue, Turnbull says, is to look beyond your own walls for inspiration.

“You don’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — always talk about yourself to be transparent,” Turnbull explains. “If you think a little bit more strategically and creatively, you’ll probably discover that there’s a wealth of inspiration in the world around you that can lead to great content. 37Signals’ blog (Signals vs. Noise) is a great example of that. The company’s bloggers do talk about the business, but they also feature customer stories and spotlight other successful startups.”

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For someone who so passionately believes in transparency, you would think that Turnbull would advise all SaaS startups to lower their shields and reveal themselves to the world.

But that isn’t the case.

In fact, before you dive into publishing a post like the one Turnbull wrote, he recommends considering whether that approach truly aligns with your brand and values.

“If you aren’t comfortable putting your heart on a plate, then don’t do it,” Turnbull says. “You can’t fake transparency. It has to come from an honest place and you have to believe in what you’re sharing.”

The bottom line, Turnbull says, is that your content should reflect who you really are and what you’re all about. If transparency isn’t you or your brand, don’t force it.

What do you think of Turnbull’s approach? Let us know in the comments section below!

Photo by: Andrew Snyder