In this post of MF 1000s, we will cover the story of Cliently and how it gained 300 users using outbound emails.
The content of this case study is taken from the podcast episode I recorded with Spencer Farber, who is the founder of Cliently.
So without further ado, let's dive deep.
How did Spencer get the idea of starting Cliently?
Before starting Cliently, Spencer used to work with PandaDoc. He was the company's first employee and worked closely with the CEO.
His tenure with the company gave him a basic understanding of SaaS, sales processes, and outbound messaging.
While handling outbound outreach for PandaDoc, Spencer discovered that it wasn't easy to scale those campaigns. He wanted to create something that could do so. This is how he got the idea of starting Cliently.
How did Spencer test his idea in the market?
Spencer launched his product on Product Hunt to test the demand and get consumer feedback. The launch did well, and he could generate a revenue of $1000/mo in the first week itself.
The initial version of Cliently targeted Twitter and could do searches based on keywords that would show intent and automatically added those accounts to campaigns.
However, after getting his first three clients, Twitter shut down API automation, and Spencer realized he didn't want to rely on Social media tools and regulations to run Cliently. So he shifted his attention to emails.
If you, by any chance, violate the ToS of those apps, or something happens to those marketplaces that's not your fault, your business is doomed.
So choose your apps carefully.
First 100 customers
Getting the first hundred customers wasn't easy for Spencer as his company was completely bootstrapped.
He had no cofounders, and he worked with a small team of freelancers.
Also, the product couldn't do what they were trying to promote at that point.
Outbound emails were the main channel for acquiring new customers.
Running ads on Reddit and doing product launches also helped them get to the first 100 customers.
How did Spencer approach the outbound email game in the early days of Cliently?
Spencer believes the process of sending outbound emails changes as the product changes.
For example, creating an app with "automatic LinkedIn engagement pods" might be a good thing three years ago (in 2019), but today (2022), the majority of the market is aware of the downsides of engagement pods, so they're not soo popular.
On the other hand, users of cold email automation products were less "demanding" 5-6 years ago when 5-15 products were on the market.
Now when you have significantly more cold email automation tools, the users are more demanding. It becomes hard to play the feature game and be objectively better in the product, but you must have at least the same product capabilities as the other products on the field.
So keep an eye on the market. Constantly get feedback from your customers, and iterate.
Now let's get back to the story.
At the beginning, Spencer mainly targeted small US-based B2B service and product companies with less than 40 employees.
The process of reaching out and pitching prospects has changed over the years. What worked a few years ago does not work right now because of the sheer volume of emails that all people receive every day.
In the past, you could send a message with a Calendly link and book meetings that way. But times are different now. Most people ignore most outbound emails unless the messaging is direct.
It's off-putting for people receiving the mail to be asked for a meeting in the first mail.
So Spencer takes a more value-based approach. He now tries to start a conversation rather than asking for an appointment.
His advice is to do personal research before reaching out to your prospects. Take note of their company size, industry, and specific role within the company.
Then figure out what will get them interested and intrigued.
You can't send the same email to a CEO and VP of sales. The VP of sales may have very different agendas compared to a CEO of the company.
You may also ask your present clients what made them choose you over your competitors and what specific problem you solve for them.
99% of the cold emails I get are straight pitching from the first sentence. It doesn't work like that.
It's the same as if you go to the bar, meet a girl there, and the first thing you say to her is, "Do you wanna go to bed with me?"
It does seem a little bit strange, right?
Then don't approach the cold email game the same way.
When you break it down, the goal of cold emails is to get a positive reply and start a conversation.
You'll pitch when you feel it's appropriate. Don't do it too early. Try to start the conversation instead.
The best cold emails are the ones where you genuinely try to build a relationship with someone - without some "secret agenda."
Here are the best takeaways on how to make cold emailing work:
- Make your email about them, not about you.
- Try to build relationships with your prospects.
- Share value, don't sell
What would Spencer do differently if he were to grow Cliently to 100 paying customers today?
Spencer would still prefer to use outbound emails to get his first hundred paying clients.
He would also begin working on inbound marketing and creating content for consistent growth.
However, this time, Spencer would start off targeting a smaller and more focused group. He would also make sure he has the right founding team and funding opportunities in place as soon as possible.
So don't be afraid of working on content marketing because it doesn't bring ROI straight away. One year from today, you'll regret not working on content earlier.
That's why, when consulting B2B SaaS companies, my recommendation is to start laying down the content foundations from day one.
Today, even saying "we're building an email marketing solution for content creators" isn't enough anymore.
Instead, say: "we're building an email marketing solution for Instagram content creators with 2-10m followers"
Narrow your potential audience as much as you can, build the solution for them, and watch your revenue grow.
How did Spencer go from 100 to 300 customers?
Outbound emails have continued to bring in 85% of all new clients for Clliently. Spencer also built small partnerships with non-competitors that promoted them to larger audiences.
Organic traffic and having a content plan have also played a significant role in acquiring more customers. Spencer believes their organic traffic will be responsible for 50% of their new customers moving forward.
Create content together or just cross-sell each others products.
Word of mouth from existing clients has also started to bring in more customers.
According to Spencer, getting the first ten customers is the hardest; it gets easier as you hit more milestones and build some momentum.
The product gets better, referrals start rolling in, and closing deals becomes easier with more social proof.
Is sending out gifts to prospects a common practice in Spencer's outbound sales efforts? How does he approach this process?
A gift should be warm and fuzzy. You shouldn't send gifts only to expect something in return.
People don't like it when a gift feels like an obligation to do something in return.
That's why the gift must be genuine and sincere.
Spencer sends out gifts to establish relationships with his prospects.
It also becomes essential to qualify your prospects before sending out gifts.
In Spencer's experience, most people would not accept a gift unless they are interested in your product.
According to Spencer, you must foresee your investment in gifting compared to the return expected.
He also suggests measuring your closing rate with and without the gifting process.
He does not recommend gifting as a viable outbound method for low lifetime value deals.
The type of gift you send is also essential.
Spencer has tried sending a lot of things to his prospects. Out of which personal gifts work the best but are harder to scale.
An example of a personalized gift might be the Boston Red Sox jersey Spencer recently sent to one of his prospects:
Since sending very personalized gifts on the scale might be a little bit complicated, Spencer suggests sending funny gifts that will be the same for everyone - such as desserts.
People may throw away or not use the products you send them, but everyone loves food, and people are generally more receptive to it.
But be careful when doing that - you should research your prospects well before sending gifts.
Gifts should be personalized. Don't send branded products because that will feel like a bribe.
How does Spencer approach the game of building relationships with his clients?
Spencer works hand in hand with the larger clients of Cliently. He helps them with the optimization of their campaigns and processes.
Spencer believes Cliently is a diverse tool, but it may not work if clients don't know how to set up campaigns on their end.
He also maintains transparency and sends out weekly emails covering all significant updates to all his company's clients to build trust and relationships.
The updates range from changes in Google Policies affecting email open rates to new features added to the product.
From being a CRM for freelancers to being an AI sales engagement platform. How did Spencer know when to pivot his company and what drove his decisions?
Cliently has always been a sales engagement tool to help people drive additional opportunities in meetings and grow revenue.
But many pivots were based on circumstances and necessities, like Twitter closing down API automation.
Other pivots were based on learnings and feedback from the clients.
Cliently pivoted from selling lead data because it was a very commoditized item, and there were many places you could get lead data from.
So Spencer decided to focus on the engagement side of the sales process.
More funding also allowed Cliently to pivot to help clients differently. Recently the company made a pivot to become an AI-based tool; this change was aided by the fact that the company had enough funding to acquire another product called ProtonAutoMl, which helped with lead scoring.
This change also allowed Spencer to bring in Harsh Gupta, CEO of ProtonAutoMl, as the COO for Cliently.
However, Spencer does not look at the changes his company has gone through as pivots; he sees them as slight nudges to shift the company's direction to its ultimate goal of becoming a great sales engagement tool.
What are some of the tips Spencer has for founders growing a SaaS company?
Spencer believes a founder should have enough funding based on his vision.
For example, he has an idea of creating a sales engagement tool, and it has been tough getting there as Cliently has always been underfunded.
What are some of the books that Spencer would recommend for all SaaS founders?
Spencer does not read many books as he has a lot going on in his company. But he plans to pick up this habit once the company grows a little and Spencer has some time to take a step back.
Spencer recommends reading the book Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross to understand the basic principles of creating a predictable sales machine.
The Bottom Line
Listen to your customers, and don't be afraid of constant product iterations as long as you are heading towards your vision.
Each week, we'll be sending you a new case study like this. No BS. No Fluff. Only actionable insights on how to grow a B2B SaaS from successful examples.