How I Got 2200 Pre-Signups for my SaaS in 2 Weeks, then Failed Hard

There are two sides to every story, and so I want to tell you ahead of time, I’m not going to sugarcoat this.

Since writing this, I’ve begun the process of relaunching Kobra, check out other parts of this story here.

When I came up with the idea for Kobra.io, I thought what I had was an absolutely splendid idea. An online collaborative code editor with video and text chat built in. I wasn’t going to be like “those other guys” (C9, CodeBox, Nitrous.io, etc) where collaboration was just a feature that was tacked on, I wanted collaboration to be the feature that my product concentrated on.

So, like every project I decided to build an MVP first and foremost. I wasn’t going to add all of the features that I thought were necessary first, or all of the features my competition had. I was going to get it just good enough to prove that it was viable, then launch.

Here’s what I decided to include in my MVP:

  • Full Code Editor using ACE, with most of the functionality you’re used to
  • Code Collaboration using Firepad
  • Text Chat
  • Video Chat
  • Personal Settings
  • Ability to add and join multiple projects
  • The ability to connect directly to your server and pull in your project.
  • The ability to sync changes with your server, when you hit “save” on a file, it’s automatically saved back to your server.

Alright, awesome! That should be enough to test my idea (heads up, it failed horribly), so I’m 4 weeks into development in my spare time at this point. I project that I can get everything done on my list in an additional 2 weeks.

Pre-Launch

I throw up a landing page with a ticker counting down 2 weeks out to our extremely specific launch time. Pre-signup now, you’ll get access when this ticker hits 0. This creates a sense of urgency. Also, I called it a “Limited Public Beta” which creates a sense of exclusivity.

On top of that, I decided that for the 2 weeks pre-launch, I was going to give away one lifetime subscription every day on Twitter through a contest. This would hopefully encourage people to share it with their friends so we would get more social traffic. (Read more on landing page / launch tips here)

Here’s what the “above the fold” portion of the landing page wound up looking like:

kobra

As you can see, I also recorded a quick 5 minute video on how to use Kobra.io showing everyone how easy it was. (And, of course now that I mention it, turns out my YouTube link no longer functions…awesome.)

I set up the @KobraIO twitter account, made sure our pre-signup and contact forms worked correctly, and pushed the site live. I kept hoping, man if this thing gets 50 pre-signups in the next 2 weeks, I will be so freakin’ happy.

Now, the first mistake I made was creating an account on Hacker News and posting the site on it…nothing happened (I had no idea how HN worked, I thought that’s just how you got stuff to go viral). Soooo…I did the next best thing I could think of and had a friend post it for me. I got a good amount of traffic, but HN did not take it very well. Sorry guys! I was a n00b…won’t happen again!

During that day we got about 200 pre-signups. Not bad! I was hooked.

2014-02-10 23.03.38

That night I decided to post the article to Reddit /r/programming here. That went WAY better than Hacker News. For several hours our site had 100+ people on it simultaneously, and that waned down to about 60+ over the next few days.

Then something crazy happened. Through Reddit a programmer found us and posted his referral link to a Facebook Group he was part of. We we’re getting just as much, if not more, traffic from this compared to Reddit. Looks like our Twitter contest paid off big time!

I continued to tweet out to people, answer questions via email, and bang out code for the launch. A few people picked up on us and wrote blog posts, which sent a trickle of traffic our way.

Overall Hacker News + Reddit got us about 1000 subscribers in 2 days, and the other 1200 was a trickle over the next few weeks from social referrals.

So far so good, here’s some stats:

  • A little over 2200 pre-signup
  • At launch, 1250 people actually logged into the tool
  • 24K Page Views
  • 19K Unique Visitors

Needless to say, at this point, I was pumped. I immediately put in some additional development time to make sure that our server could handle the load.

During Launch

Another developer I was working on the project with and myself were sitting in a room we rented downtown to use as our office. My finger was on the “deploy” button and we were watching the counter tick down, getting closer and closer to 0.

2014-02-21 18.48.29

We had our sign-up count up on a big screen, so when we hit “Launch!” we could see how many people were signing in.

We sent a few emails out during the days previous, a 2-hour countdown reminder email, and were about to push the “We’re Live Email!” That email also happened to have a coupon code for $10 of free Digital Ocean credit. (I’ll be writing another post on our email strategy soon as well)

I’ll admit, I couldn’t contain myself, I pushed to production 5 seconds early, and the second I did, we began to see the sign ups climb! We hit 50 actual sign ups in about the first 10 seconds. Then 100, then 300, all the way to about 1200 actual people in the tool (this happened after about a week).

Success! Or so I thought…

Post-Launch

Sadly those numbers weren’t the numbers I was actually concerned about. I wanted to know how many people were actually using the tool.

Turns out, we only had about 100 users create projects out of the 1200+ that logged in. Wow…that’s not a whole lot seeing as that is the point of the tool. Out of those, only 20 of them had more than one person…also the point of the tool.

I sat down with the other developer and our business guy and we had a long heart to heart about 3 weeks after launch.

There was a lot of yelling, arguing about what we should do with the tool, and in general everyone was stressed out. “How could this happen we were doing so well!?”

Since I was the primary person working on Kobra.io, in the end it was ultimately my decision on what to do with it. And I’m not going to lie, after that conversation, I had almost zero motivation to continue it.

So what did I do? I stopped. The only thing I continued to do was pay the server bills. I stopped coding it, I stopped checking in on the site, I even stopped using the tool myself.

Here are the stats as of right now:

  • 1556 Registered Accounts
  • 322 Projects Created
  • 68 Projects with multiple people in them
  • 18 active projects in the past 4 weeks
  • 9 active projects in the past 4 weeks where the project had more than 1 user in it. OUCH.

That means that only NINE PEOPLE out of my reach of over 2200 actually use the tool how it’s meant to be used.

 Looking Back

It’s been about 4 or 5 months since I launched Kobra, and my emotions have definitely settled down. This time has also given me the chance to look at this a little bit more objectively to figure out what I think I did wrong. And I think it all boils down to one thing:

I Didn’t Actually Build an MVP

What I built was a full-blown freakin’ product. I thought it was an MVP because I didn’t have things like an in-browser console for your server.

But the reality is, I still built a full product that was going to compete with the likes of c9, CodeBox, Nitrous.io, etc. And the fact of the matter is, they have way more resources and money than I do. There’s no way I can directly compete in the “online code editor” market, whether or not I have good collaborative features.

On top of that I assumed that the way I worked on projects (remotely over SSH or SFTP) was how everyone set up their projects. I’d buy a $5/month Digital Ocean server, set up Nginx+Python or whatever I needed, then I’d use Sublime Text to connect remotely and I’d begin coding.

Since that’s the functionality I programmed, and it’s what I thought everyone did, I didn’t think to actually test something smaller than this.

In fact, the only way to create a project on Kobra was to do it over SSH.

An MVP should be built to test the absolute minimum set of features that will be viable to test your business, idea or SaaS. That way you don’t waste time developing something that might not gain any traction.

I wasted time developing a full-blown editor, and this should definitely not have been my starting point.

The Future

However, there is one thing that I did learn that is definitely a good take-away. And that is the fact that people are interested in collaborative coding.

If they weren’t interested, there is no way that I would have gotten 2200 pre-signups.

So, am I going to stop here? Definitely not.

Something huge is on the horizon for Kobra.io. Sign up for my newsletter below to follow me along on the journey to try to salvage my SaaS and see if I can still make anything of it. I’m going to be 100% open about all of the numbers and all of the work I put into this.

This time, I’m doing it right.

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  • zhouhao

    We need Kobra.io!

  • Ian Armour

    I really love your product there’s nothing else out there that does it quite as well as kobra! SSH access and real time editing are huge features for me.

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      Thanks Ian :)

  • santiagobasulto

    I really liked your story. I think you did everything good. The problem is that these things take time. People wants us to believe that you can code something and become a successful billionarie over night. That’s not the idea. You’ll have to work and tune your product until you find something close to product-market fit. Plus, have you talked to those 9 guys that were using your product? Those are Early Adopters man. That’s gold. You should talk to then, thank them and learn from them.

    Anyway. Good luck with Kobra. Seems like a nice tool.

    BTW: I’ve tried Kobra right now and I’m seeing a bug (http://dpaste.com/3X3KR42).

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      I haven’t talked to them, no. However I did just receive a 2 page email from someone that says they use it every day, so I will definitely be getting in touch with them! Also going to send out a survey to different segments of my list asking them what they like, don’t like, if they use the competition, what they’d like to see, etc.

      As mentioned in the post, I actually haven’t touched the code for Kobra in about 4 months, so there are most likely bugs. I’ve been working on a new version, so at least at this point I may not be fixing them. We’ll see where this goes in the next few weeks!

      Thanks again :)

  • Sean Lang

    I was actually one of those 2180 people who didn’t use the tool as it is supposed to be used. I tried kobra.io after a recommendation from Joe Kremer, but never did more than poke around in it. I was interested in seeing what you made because it looks like a cool concept and it would be fantastic for collaborative coding and teaching, but the idea of switching my editor (and the editor of whoever I’m working with) from ST3 / Atom / Vim / Emacs to Ace was a huge problem. Programmers are often very picky about their editors. Also, needing to have my files on a server, rather than my local machine, was really inconvenient.

    Anyway, in the end I ended up finding [Firepad for Atom]( https://github.com/firebase/atom-firepad ), and for chat I just use Google Hangouts.

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      I think the idea of switching editors is a MAJOR problem in this market. Developers (including myself) are very attached to their editors. That’s why I’m debating dialing back the actual full-blown editor of Kobra and making it more of a “collaborate when you need it” platform.

      Also, Kobra is actually based on Firepad :)

      Thanks for the input!

  • http://melaniekelly.co Melanie Kelly

    I’m confused. In what way did you fail? You got signups and you have people using your product (even if they aren’t the numbers you would expect). If I were in your position, I’d spend some time making the onboarding process as easy as possible. I would segment my email list into people who haven’t signed up yet, people who have signed up but haven’t created a project and people who have projects that aren’t active, focus on each of these user problems separately, and make it as simple as possible for people to invite their friends to collaborate with them.
    I have a hard time seeing this project as a failure, the low numbers you’re seeing after a successful pre-launch is just a natural part of the conversion funnel. If anything the fact that kobra.io is focused on collaboration, it’s going to make it a lot easier for it to grow.

    I signed up to your newsletter, I’m interested to see where you take this project.

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      Thanks for the feedback Melanie! I think you’re definitely right, I think this was an emotional “giving up” failure, and maybe not an actual product failure. Great idea to segment the list. I’ll probably do that this weekend and write each segment a survey to get better input, and see how I want to proceed further.

      And thanks for the newsletter sign up :)

  • Liam O’Flynn

    This story was actually kind of sad, it reminded me of all the unfinished products I never pushed to the web…

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  • Sergio Arturo Ortiz Khoury CoF

    Hi Matt, first of all I think you are on the right track, this is a great idea and a lot of entrepreneurs are searching for a solution like this. I’m the owner of a company that involves development, but I’m not here to talk about us… I was looking for a solution so our developers could code together in real time and I came across kobra.io … My first problem was that I couldn’t setup my first project, I’m not an expert and maybe I didn’t put the effort or time needed to setup my account correctly… but this was not your problem it was mine ;)

    What I really want to say here is that maybe the focus can be a little different… I tried to tell my developers and tried to convince them to work in a platform like kobra.io or c9.io , but they didn’t really like the idea… I think they somehow have a good point, is very difficult for 2 people to be working on the same file at the same time and don’t provoke errors , so
    1. if you could somehow could create a way to work like with branches that would be awesome, also this would be a new feature not available on others like c9.
    2. If you could create something like http://macrabbit.com/espresso/ to test changes immediately could be also great.
    3. And I think this can be your main focus, let’s go to the root problem, when would anybody want collaboration, most times when a problem comes up and you need help from someone else to try to solve some issue… what if you create a community of freelancers (experts) on each programming language (php, js, etc) and give real time support to developers or business owners like me (not experienced developers) that want to see how the problem is fixed, and if possible at that moment.

    Kind regards

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      Hey Sergio, thanks so much for the input and ideas! You’ve definitely got some good points here, and I’ve definitely thought about the possibilities of doing #3. The only reason I have strayed away from doing #2 is that there are many other services out there that offer live web editing. I wanted to make sure that Kobra was useful across all languages, not just front-end web.

      Thanks again!

  • http://twitter.com/MateusCaruccio Mateus Caruccio

    It’s too soon to say it’s failed. I own a PaaS company for 2 years now and it started pay the bills last month.

    Maybe you are offering kobra to the wrong customers. This is an excellent collaborative tool, but only for those who need it. Educational institutions would use it for student/teacher interaction.

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      Thanks for the input Mateus. There are already a good amount of these types of tools in the student/teacher market, but I do think that the problem we face is a very very small percentage of developers program in exactly the way myself and my team do, and that’s how we built the tool.

      We were only looking at ourselves instead of how a majority of developers work. I’m working on a new version that will widen the types of developers we can get on the tool (hopefully).

      Thanks again!

  • http://www.wordane.com/ Udit Kulshrestha

    Thank Matt for taking the pains trying to be true and blunt to the audience. I myself signed up before the launch. Then tried Kobra, but did not continue.
    All the best with future KOBRA.
    Let me know if I can be of any help for you.
    God Bless

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      Thanks Udit!

  • http://paulgolding.com Paul Golding

    Thanks for sharing. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t build an MVP. You built something more and managed to deliver it without running out of time/money, so that wasn’t the problem. Anyway, what concept were you aiming to prove with your MVP? Sounds like there’s already a proven market for your product and that you are facing switch-over costs from existing tools/workflows. Typically such a move requires incentives. What were they in your case? Sounds like you needed more business strategy than product strategy per se.

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      Hey Paul, thanks for the insight. I think what happened is we were on the right track with our idea, but we set the barrier to entry wayyy to high. On the topic of MVP, we really should have started with something smaller just to confirm the need, then evolve the product from there. Instead, I think we confirmed a need, however, we failed at the product.

      The switch-over costs are indeed a massive issue with us, which has a large impact on the business strategy. However, what if we could eliminate those switch-over costs? I’ve got some good idea brewing ;) (I think at least…)

  • http://lukewarmemailer.com/ Colin Mathews

    Really nice write-up. I was nodding my head along with you at each paragraph. :)

  • http://www.arcadecrm.com Maurice Koks

    Nice read Matt, well this drew my attention as I am about to launch in private beta, the only difference is that we didn’t build an MVP, so it took much longer then planned for (almost 3 years) with a team of 5 developers from prototype to (almost) private beta so if you talk about ¨Quote: we REALLY built a full-blown freakin¨ product, well If you built a full blown freaking product , I am asking myself what did we do ???
    Now i am not sure how to place this, (quote: I had almost zero motivation to continue it.) I mean even do this started this as a side project and we planned to go in beta within a year, it finally forced me to work 80 hours a week since i run a premium cigar factory with 130 people and do the international sales etc so i had to divide my time, and just to give you the idea, i was involved in all the aspects from the design stuff, illustrator, PSD etc etc to about a 3000 screencasts and thousands of Zoom, skype, whatsapp, slack chats & screen sharing sessions and conversation to communicate with my distributed team. So after reading this, I have mixed feeling and I am not sure if this should Motivate or De Motivate me??? Any Suggestions??