Indian founders have increasingly been travelling to the US. There is no doubt in my mind that Indian companies can be global powerhouses, but getting the momentum going in a place with such vast cultural, social, and economic differences can be tricky. Often founders make the same mistakes. And there is a way of doing this with minimum friction. By learning from those who have been there.
Though we’re in the middle of a down cycle, the consensus is that SaaS is a secular trend, and Indian SaaS firms have the potential to touch $1 trillion in market cap by 2030. Companies are willing to spend on software tools that increase their productivity. That trend only grew during the pandemic. Until May, in the US alone, capital worth $8 billion has been deployed towards enterprise SaaS companies. There has never been a better time to do business there.
So, I reached out to Srikrishnan Ganesan (Sri) from Rocketlane to understand what it took for them to bag their first 10 customers in the US.
Sri has been someone I spoke to whenever I wanted to discuss go-to-market strategies. Years ago, at my time at Matrix Partners I was fortunate enough to partner with Rocketlane at the seed stage. Since then, this company has been on a rocketship (sorry for the pun). There are some interesting learnings in their journey for founders on how to get to your first few US customers.
Now, I am going to do two things. One a TLDR for all you guys who don’t have the time to read my entire chat and for those reading it over in depth, sip it like fine whiskey and read on.
- Always, always, always be on the sales call. You need to know what resonates with customers. What makes their eyes pop. You know your product better than anyone else.
- Always seek feedback on your pitch and your product. This feedback may help convert leads later or help you pitch to other customers or fine tune your product.
- This feedback is important. Rocketlane launched on Producthunt and announced the fundraise at the same time. Sri used some of the feedback as testimonials. This created buzz.
- Rocketlane also managed to create FOMO by giving some decision makers access to their product before it launched. Word of mouth travelled and people were curious about it.
- Rocketlane did not do cold outreach. It was by design. They leveraged their VCs and their networks to get introductions to potential customers. This gave them a foot in the door.
- But that was not just it. Even though Rocketlane operated in a new category, it used Google Adwords to generate high intent traffic.
- One thing Sri was sure of: he didn’t want Rocketlane to look like a startup based out of India. If the company looked global and well-established, it would lend credibility to the product and make conversations easier.
- He also created a budget for promotional events. He says founders don’t know when they’re going to get an opportunity to present their product in front of a large customer base.
Always listen to the customer
Sri is doing this for the second time. He sold his first startup Konotor, an in-app chat business, to Freshworks. One thing he learned from that time is that the founder needs to be part of every demo, every negotiation, at least for the first 30 customers. Why? To observe and understand what speaks to them, what their pain points are, and to build a product that solves an actual problem.
“I try different lines on calls with customers to understand what’s resonating, what’s sticking with them, and also which RoI pitch works when you’re doing a demo,” Sri says.
“When does the customer’s eye pop? You want to do all that firsthand. A Gong recording is not going to show you that because it only captures who’s talking,” he says.
In the Rocketlane journey, Sri says, they took a slightly different approach of not launching quickly with a minimum viable product (MVP).
In the very early stages, they reached out with early prototype versions to potential customers through their angel investors and VCs. In these meetings, they got feedback and understood the customer narrative around their product, which eventually helped them pitch better.
“We started doing those demos with everyone. It wasn’t even the full product yet, but still, we kept doing demos and getting feedback. We understood how business owners and entrepreneurs are thinking about what we’re building, why they think it’s important, and why they would buy something like this. And it helped us build a narrative around our product, which helped once we launched. We could use that narrative to pitch to others,” Sri says.
This, in a nutshell, is why founders need to be a part of early customer calls. It gives them a true idea of what the market wants, what needs to be built more, and what needs to go in the initial building stages.
This feedback cycle helped Rocketlane build out the product. Did all feedback lead to constructive leads? Did all leads translate to paying customers? Not always. So they did a few things during the launch to give potential customers confidence.
“We announced our seed funding along with the launch of the product. We also launched on Product Hunt the same day. We had some testimonials from people who had seen demos of the product, and we positioned them as the value proposition for our offering,” Sri adds.
Equally, there are lessons in what didn’t work while reaching out to potential customers.
Sri says they realised early on that conversion needs a top-down approach. People may find products useful, but unless they have decision-making power in a setup, it will not lead to a successful sale.
Rocketlane let people from their network try out their early version for two months before the official launch. These were usually people within teams and other curious folks who wanted to try out a new product. As long as it wasn’t a formal initiative in the company, or people weren’t paying for it, you didn’t make a sale.
Another thing they did well was very proactively identifying bottlenecks in their sales process. Whenever a customer initially interested in the product stalled, they’d try to brainstorm how to move it along and how to prevent similar stalling with the next customer.
“For example, one early US company that discovered us through our Product Hunt launch was interested in our product, but just before purchase, they had concerns about how we can support them in their geography, being based in India. Luckily, we responded to that email at 2:00am and got on call immediately. Once we figured this was a concern, we began bringing it up ourselves in subsequent calls with prospects, telling them we have round-the-clock coverage,” Sri recalls.
Showing customers they were on the path to addressing a potential bottleneck worked for Rocketlane. For instance, they knew customers had security concerns, and prepared for it. Even before getting actual security reports, it worked to show a path for it. “You need to show your awareness of what customers care about,” Sri adds.
Given that Rocketlane was serving a completely new product, another initial bottleneck they identified was that customers did not understand how to evaluate their value proposition fully.
Once they figured out those “we’ll try this over the weekend and get back to you” calls weren’t happening, Rocketlane proactively offered to build the first version of a template that would simplify onboarding for customers from their spreadsheets or Asana projects.
“They gave us a file today, we gave them back an account with the template set up tomorrow, so that when we jump on a call with them, they’re wowed about the experience, and help them start a serious evaluation at their end,” Sri says.
Rocketlane also asked everyone, from potential clients to VCs, for introductions to companies that might find their product useful.
Sri says 99% won’t make that additional introduction, but even if one person recommends them, the chances of conversion are higher. This is because they understood that there was a true use case for this potential client, and Rocketlane was a good fit for them.
“After the first two months of launch, we began experimenting with Google Ads. Given it is still an early stage category, the search volumes were understandably low, but anyone searching for a similar business would have high intent. And that paid off. We also spent energy on listing ourselves in some of these software research comparison sites like G2, Capterra, which helped inbound,” says Sri.
Building credibility goes beyond sales and customers, reviews and testimonials. I find it interesting that Rocketlane built a community for customer onboarding nine months before the product launch, called Preflight, which has over 1,900 people today.
“We didn’t do outreach in the community. But when people came on a call with us to evaluate our product, we told them about it. People on Preflight are people in the same role that we are selling to, like implementation onboarding specialists and customer success folks. That added to the credibility of the product. I think one of the things we did well was at every point in time in our journey, we looked like we were ahead of where we actually were,” adds Sri.
The folks at Rocketlane understood the importance of appearances, quite literally. The website needed to look beautiful and convey maturity. So their first hire was a designer, and it shows in the final product, Sri says.
There is plenty out there about how different the US is, culturally and business-wise. But how does a new category SaaS business make inroads in the market? Are there things you do differently? Do cold emails work the best? Or are there other ways to get customers in the US?
Sri says Rocketlane did not do outreach. Cold emails and cold calling potential customers were limited exercises. Instead, Rocketlane prioritised finding where demand existed. This meant getting inbound leads by listing in the right places, spending on Google AdWords, and having a high-quality website that did not look raw.
Sri also said he analysed competitor and category keywords. This helped him understand what people were looking for and how he could direct traffic his way.
The intent was that Rocketlane appear to be a global company. “We wanted to ensure that people who are looking for these tools find us,” Sri adds.
That paid off. One of the things companies care about, even early in their journey, is having post-sales teams that look mature. So many early-stage US companies found that Rocketlane’s product embodied a way for them to look more mature.
A key difference from selling in India is that the propensity to pay for software is more, says Sri. So there was not much focus on discounted prices.
“US companies are more system driven than people driven. So pitching them on systemising things and codifying things work better,” Sri says.
Budgeting for US GTM
An obvious and practical question for founders is how much capital to set aside for a US go-to-market strategy.
Rocketlane, says Sri, raised $3 million in its Seed round, and kept $1 million for getting early customers and traction. “It depends on your category,” he says. Because Rocketlane’s is a new category, they had to make some noise about it. “You need to budget for events in your category so that you’re putting yourself out there. We presented ourselves in four or five events in the first three-quarters of launch,” he adds. Events like SaaStr worked for them, as did setting aside $300,000 annually for sources like Google AdWords for discovery.
But founders need to remember that this is a process. There is no mantra for success. Rocketlane got to where they did by focusing on the task at hand for a year. Neither Freshworks nor Salesforce was built overnight. It takes grit, determination, and a lot of patience to make things happen. Sometimes it needs luck, but sometimes luck finds you if you work smart.