Should Agencies Build Their Own SaaS Product?

Jan 20 2021
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Let me start by painting a picture for you. It’s sometime around November 2019 and there wasn’t a mask in sight…

I’ve just finished a call with one of our digital marketing clients where we had been discussing how we could make our flow of taking their sales data and merging it with their marketing data more efficient.

Stay with me.

The reason we want to do this is because our agency  (HelloClicks) was running pay-per-click lead generation campaigns for the client and we like to show in black and white, how much revenue our campaigns are generating for their business.

When marketers can see which campaigns, ads and keywords are generating sales as opposed to just leads – it lets them trim the fat and drop what isn’t bringing in an ROI and use that budget towards what’s making the £££’s.

We already had a great relationship with this client and we weren’t worried about losing them. But I have the mentality in my agency that the better our clients do, the better we do. It might not be of the philosophical heights of Darwin, but it’s worked well for us so far.

At that moment in time, we were asking the client each month to produce an export of their sales for the month from their existing CRM. Sales would contain attributes of our marketing campaigns that we’d tagged once the lead had come in. 

We would then sort this data, prepare it to upload into Google Ads in the correct format and then upload.

That doesn’t sound like the biggest job in the world but when you have lots of clients in the same boat that you need to do this for, as well as having to fix errors in the data – it starts to become a full-time job rather than just a part of a performance marketing strategy.

I’d tried various different ways of completing this task using different tricks and tools. But there always seemed to require some sort of human interaction and it always seemed to take forever.

After the call with our client, I sat and thought about what we could do to make this all that much easier.

That’s when the lightbulb went off.

I had the idea to automate the entire process, everything from putting the marketing data into a CRM, taking it out again once the sale happened, as well as validating the data and importing it into Google Ads. 

And this would be done by building our own software to do it.

What I wanted to build was a simple tool to automate this process. I remember thinking to myself that it couldn’t be that hard…  

Or so I thought.

I’m not a developer and we don’t have anyone with even nearly enough free time on-staff to work on this. So I hired a contractor, gave him an extremely detailed brief, some wireframes and within 2 to 3 weeks we had a working version. Albeit looking like something made in Microsoft Frontpage circa ‘94, but it still had legs. And most importantly, it did what we needed it to.

Within days we were taking live sales data and pushing it into our clients’ Google Ads account. We were elated and not only was it going to help our clients make more money, it was going to save us a huge amount of time each month.

But it didn’t stop there.

As I showed more and more clients the tool I began thinking of how useful this could be for more businesses than just the companies that we work with.

I’d begun to hear alot of comments along the lines of “it would be great if it also did that”….

But to do ‘that’ we needed more features.

I say a few, but what I actually mean is enough to take it from an edgy looking prototype to a full-blown SaaS platform.

There had already been a number of agencies do just this, only for it to overtake the agency itself. A fairly well-known platform called Moz was produced on the back of the founders ( Rand Fishkin ) agency for example. Moz is now one of the world’s most popular platforms for SEO.

So it was decided, we were doing it. Monty was born. Interesting sidenote : Monty was actually our codename for the product, but it kind of just ended up sticking.

From here on in, it was decided that HelloClicks was going to enter the SaaS space and build a complete software product.  

HERE WE GO!

So it began.

I’m sorry to cut the ride short, but before long it came apparent that this was going to take more work than I or any of the team had bargained for.

On top of everything that goes along with running an agency like client meetings, sales calls and general running of a business – there was a whole other ‘thing’ screaming for your attention.

And if you didn’t give it any attention, nothing would get done. Who knew?

Oh and there was a slight issue of a global pandemic to contend with… But we won’t go into that just now.

Fortunately I had already had a bit of experience as a web developer and I generally like to think of myself as a t-shaped marketer (a bit punchy I know) but nothing had prepared me for the sheer amount of work that’s required to build a product from the ground upwards.

We’re talking about things like choosing programming languages, wire-framing, designing, coding, choosing which features to build and in which order. How said features will work and most importantly, supporting the entire thing.

And all of this at the same time as trying to grow an agency.

I think what i’m trying to say here is that it’s not as simple as hiring a developer to “go and build that”.

Unless you have a team of resources in-house that are available to work on it then it’s going to have to be passed out to external parties. And those external parties are going to need direction.  

It’s resulted in having to devote around 50% more hours during the working week to get the product to where it is today, 12 or so months later. If i’d only given it an hour or two each day, then i would suspect it would have taken us 2 – 3 years to get our product to where it is right now.

The main difference between SaaS and Service Based

Within a digital marketing agency, account managers are typically used to optimising campaigns every day. If you’re good at what you do, there isn’t generally too much that can go wrong.

With SaaS it’s a bit different. If something goes wrong at 5am on a cold Sunday morning, then you really are going to have to get up and make sure it gets fixed pronto. As well as supporting all of the users facing issues.

Where We Are Now

I’m not going to say it’s been easy, but our agency is now stronger for putting in that time and effort into building Monty. There are companies using our platform now to run their entire business and that’s a great feeling. We have something that we can include with our pitches to help us stand out. As well as something that can be signed up for and purchased completely independently.

I think we were a bit different to some other agencies who may be thinking about launching their own SaaS. We’ve actually bitten the bullet and followed through with it.

What I’ve seen happen before within agencies is that they have either lost the momentum quite quickly. Usually when the amount of work involved became apparent or when the decision to prioritise the client work over the product had to take place. Meaning the product took a backseat for days, months and even years.

We fast tracked the build of our product as we knew this was the direction we wanted to go. We could have opted to keep iterating on the product overtime too, which I think some agencies might actually do. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were quite a few of them out there who have their own internal tools that they use already for specific tasks and with some tweaking could be packaged up and sold as a standalone product.

Closing thoughts

Running an agency is brilliant and running a SaaS product is as equally as rewarding. But it not only takes time, but will take alot motivation to stick at it. It also needs to be treated like it’s own business, which means more moving parts that you need to work with. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, i’m going to try to do one of these each month. 

Please feel free leave a comment below if you have any questions or would like to tell us about the product your agency has built!

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