A Redditor asks:

My SaaS product is done. We have a customer who we reached out to locally. I’ve got a freelance writer (via Reddit!) who is working on creating an email course to educate and inform potential customers. Until that is done there is nowhere for me to collect email addresses and start warming them up. However, I do have pricing and plans and the sign up is fully implemented. Is it worth creating a couple ads to start generating some traffic yet? Or is it going to be a complete waste of time until I have that ecourse and am able to collect email addresses? If I do create ads now is it critical to also have a landing page for each?

For over 12 years, I’ve run paid ad campaigns on popular channels like Google and Facebook, but also less known advertising channels like Reddit and Plenty of Fish. I’ve used those ads to get people to buy software, play online games, even buy flip flops my Mom handmakes. I’ve learned a ton about optimizing click through rates, landing pages, ad budgets, etc.

And those lessons have been super valuable. When we redid the Highrise marketing site I had a ton of lessons and tools at my disposal to help optimize our conversions. By changing layouts, copy, buttons, headlines, and testimonials, we doubled our conversion rate.

Nothing is a waste of time if done to learn a new skill. If you read any of the books on learning, like Talent Code, the trick is to practice deliberately and in small feedback loops that don’t kill you. Do you know much about paid ads and conversion optimization? Then that’s a great way to learn about them. Just time box it. Don’t spend many resources on this step.

See, I’ve also used these same skills to recruit thousands of users to a new business I started in 2011. Optimized the bejesus out of our ads on places like Reddit. We were getting super high conversion rates on our landing pages.

But here’s the rub. How many of those tens of thousands of people whom we recruited are now following what I’m doing at Highrise or Draft? How many of them follow my blog or what I have to say on Twitter? How many of those people whose attention I paid for in 2011, are helping me with my goals today?


Even though I encourage experimentation with pay-per-click ads and landing page optimization, often their pursuit doesn’t get us very far.

Ads for most products in most industries are just way too saturated. It’s become a break even game of advertisers paying so much for a click, that they convert just enough customers and given the lifetime value of the customer, they make their ad budget back. But they look so tempting. It’s a fun puzzle to solve. If you could just find that overlooked keyword+product combo, you could just scale that up and profit.

But these players also know their customer’s lifetime value. They know how many new users each paid user recruits. They get the type of traffic they can use to get significant statistical samples to split test every button, headline, and word. The people winning the ad game can play with a sophistication to make their ad budgets back plus profit, and still the results are usually temporary as new entrants and click fraud push click prices higher and higher.

But many of us who are on our first product or even our tenth product don’t have all these things figured out yet.

So instead of spending much time on optimizing landing pages and ads, I’d spend more time on what Paul Graham would say: Things that don’t scale.

You mentioned having one customer, now go get 10. Call them. Meet at their office. Go give them a demo in person. Review their results with them slowly and methodically. This stuff doesn’t scale. You aren’t going to want to make this the way you get big, but one customer is often not enough. If they are the only one in your ear about features you need, you’ll probably be too inclined to make a specific thing that just fits their needs. I created Inkling as part of Y Combinator in 2005, and we were constantly in this state in the beginning. We would have one big customer paying us a hefty amount of money, but then the requirements they had were incredibly specific and not at all applicable to other clients down the road. Once we started getting that slightly bigger sample size, the commonalities were much easier to spot, and we could focus on those. It became a lot easier to make the right things the next customer needed, and build a product that would actually work as a business.

I’d also focus on teaching. Read everything Kathy Sierra talks about on the topic – actually, just read everything she’s written. Here’s a great place to start: Out teach your competition.

Your email course is a great idea. But you are right, you have no one to email. So where else can you get yourself teaching people. Are you writing a blog? Running a podcast? Doing any interviews with other teachers in this industry? What about trying to get some articles published in magazines? Hosting a meetup?

What’s great is how all this teaching can be repurposed for different places. Turn the email course into a video blog. Turn it into a set of lessons on Vine. Take pictures and use Instagram to share the lesson.

Gary Vaynerchuk does a great job of this. Every lesson can be repurposed and told using the strengths of another channel. Check out how he uses Instagram to teach.

Again, this stuff is often going to feel like it doesn’t scale. It’s a slog. And it doesn’t immediately convert to new customers and automatic wealth. But the payoff is in the long game. Start building an audience. Your product is going to go through dozens of iterations. Maybe it doesn’t even work out. But that audience? They’ll follow you to the next iteration, or the next project.

I wish this was the view I had taken when I was building that business in 2011. The money and time I spent could have been spent building an audience who could be helping me with today’s challenges.

Congratulations on your product. That is an awesome first step. Have fun! And keep the momentum going! Most people can’t even get something out the door. The fact though now is, most of our first products fail. We didn’t make them right. Or they’re missing something critical we didn’t realize we overlooked. Or in two years, you realize you need to pursue something different.

So, I’d be careful about trying to optimize something like pay-per-click ads, and landing pages. Those are often just local maxima, meaning you might improve something about it and it feels like a small win, but there’s probably a much bigger win to find if you open up your gaze on the life of your product and career as an entrepreneur. It’s hopefully a career you are going to be growing for a very long time.

(A version of my answer originally appeared on Reddit.)

P.S. If I can be of service at all to anyone, please let me know. Would love to help any way I can. Twitter is a great place to reach me. You should follow me: here.