Justin Jackson

Why you’re not making sales

Why you're not making product sales with your SaaS


I’ve spoken with a lot of folks who don’t like sales, but want to make a living selling their own products.

Here’s the reality: if you want to earn an income from a product you’ve created – a web app, an e-book, an iOS app, or desktop software – you’re going to put a price on it and ask people to buy.

You might not like it, but there’s no other way. No one is going to just give you money so that you can achieve your dreams. Truthfully, customers don’t really care about you; they’re just regular people looking to solve their own problems.

It’s not about you

I keep meeting brilliant people who are building products wrong.

It’s not the technical aspects that are wrong; the problem is they’re not starting with the customer in mind. They’re starting with themselves. Instead of finding pain that people need solved, they’re focused on their own needs: they want to use the latest tech, the latest framework, the latest design technique.

It’s not about you.

No seriously, it’s not about you. If you want a business, you can’t be your own customer.

If you started your project without talking to a single soul you’re doing it wrong. If you’ve talked to 100 people, it won’t matter until you connect with a group of people who need your help. That’s where you start. Not with yourself, and your ideas, but with other people.

You’re not connecting with a real need

Derek Sivers tells a great story about trying to make it in the music business. He hustled for years as a musician, but his career never really took off. Then he created CD Baby, a site that allowed artists to sell their music. This was before PayPal existed, and setting up a shopping cart was difficult. The company he’d accidentally created in a weekend, took off and became a great success.

“I’d finally created something people wanted. It was like I’d written a hit song. Once you have a hit, all the locked doors open wide. People love it so much, it seems to promote itself. Don’t persistently do what’s not working.”

Finding a hit means starting with people (as I mentioned above), and figuring out what they need.

You don’t start with code, or with an idea; you start by listening to people. It’s inherently difficult to find a genuine pain that others have for two reasons:

  1. We’re inherently self-focused, and not thinking about the needs of others
  2. A lot of legitimate problems have boring solutions, or solutions that require hard work

You might be a photographer that really wants to do artsy photo shoots for magazines. But the reality is that there are more weddings that need photographers than artsy magazines. Doing artsy photos is a desire you have for yourself; being a wedding photographer connects with a need people actually have. You can test this easily by searching Craigslist: how many people are looking for wedding photographers? How many people want to pay you just so you can express yourself creatively in a way that is satisfying only to you?

Good products start with the line: “People need me to…” not “I want to…”.

Tell me about what you’re selling

Whenever people tell me they’ve built a new product, I ask them to tell me about it, or show me the web page.

This is where words really matter. Every elevator pitch, landing page, or sales letter basically boils down to this formula:

You (the customer) have ___ problem.

Hire my product, and you’ll solve that problem.

That’s it. However, that’s easier said than done (I’m constantly revising my sales copy: here and here). The key is to keep it as simple and as direct as you can. The customer doesn’t need to hear about your philosophy or your ideals. They don’t need to hear your mission statement. All they want to know is: “Can you solve my problem?”

You need to appeal to the person with the checkbook

This is often the hardest part for creatives to swallow. When you’re selling to businesses, you’re not appealing to the cool, hip designer, or the brilliant engineer. Usually, you’re selling to a boring manager with a checkbook. They don’t care about what framework you used for your software, or about that beautiful font pairing you made. Generally they only care about four things:

  1. How will this make me more money?
  2. How will this save me more money?
  3. How will this save me more time?
  4. How will this make me look good?

I know: capitalistic, boring, pragmatic and vain. And yet while things like user experience, design, and technical architecture do matter over the long haul, they’re not going to get you the sale up-front. Your value proposition is what gets you the sale; everything else helps you keep the sale (or creates repeat sales).

Still want to do this?

If you’re serious about making a living on products, you’re going to need to sell.

Here’s what you need to do: identify a real problem, and then clearly communicate the solution to the person with the checkbook.

Justin Jackson

PS: looking for a checklist of steps you can use to make more product sales? I’m writing a book about that.

Published on September 18, 2013

Pretty doesn’t sell

Pretty stylish sexy design for web apps

I was fed up.

After suffering with my low-cost web host for years, I decided to switch. I was fed up with poor up-time, slow load times, and bad customer support. The price was cheap ($5/month), but I needed something better. So I started evaluating other providers. Anyone who’s tried to compare managed hosting providers knows what a pain it is: spammy review sites, 100 item feature lists, and cheap looking marketing pages.

Finally I found a provider that stood out from the crowd: they had a beautifully designed website and promised speed, reliability and support.

Did I mention they were pretty?

There was a time when most web apps looked bad. They were cluttered, noisy, littered with icons, and had little in terms of cohesive design (here’s a good example).

But then companies like 37signals came on the scene. Their products were beautifully designed; they believed that software should look good. Soon new SaaS apps emerged with a similar design aesthetic.

For those of us buying this software, an unspoken rule emerged: software with a nice design = better software.

And for a long time, the rule held true. Software that looked good often was better than it’s uglier counterparts.

Back to my story

I chose the web host that had the prettiest design. They were 4x the cost of my low-cost provider, but I was confident that any company that cared about design also cared about building a great product.

I was wrong.

As I started to use their service, the pretty veneer faded away and revealed an ugly truth: they weren’t reliable. This meant frequent downtime, slow customer support, and an interface that “looked nice” but was cumbersome to use.

After a few years of using this new provider, I finally bit the bullet and switched again. This time, I chose a web host recommended by a friend. They were a bit more expensive ($9 more per month) but they delivered on the things that really mattered:

Notice that “beautiful design” isn’t on that list. The design of their website and their back-end is basic, utilitarian, and (dare I say it) a little ugly.

We’re in the post-pretty era

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m not saying that the principles of design don’t matter. They do, especially when applied to structure, flow, readability and navigation. Good interface design helps users get things done, and creates great experiences.

What I’m focusing on is the “look”. It’s the philosophy that we need to create gorgeous looking screens. It’s the desire to emulate the pretty designs we see on Path, Mailbox, and Pinterest. It’s wanting to have an app that is the most “stylish”, “sexy” and conforms to current design trends.

The era of stylish design being a competitive advantage, or a marketable feature, is over.

Pretty doesn’t sell (anymore)

Like I mentioned, there was a time where I’d pay for a new app just because it looked great. Not anymore. Here’s why:

  1. It’s easier to fake a nice veneer – using frameworks like Foundation, Bootstrap, and other UI libraries, it’s easier and easier to make an app “look nice”. For marketing pages, there are dozens of cheap templates available that look good. 
  2. I care more about outcomes – I’m use software to achieve tasks. What’s the use of a pretty design if it doesn’t help me get my work done? Apps should focus less on making it “look good”, and more on making it “work good”. Help the user get from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible.
  3. What’s under the hood matters – speed and reliability matter. I want the software I use to be fast, whether it’s on the web, on my phone, or on my desktop. I also want uptime: anytime an app crashes, is down, or unavailable it’s a disruption to my day.

Essentially, a good looking app is no longer a good measure of quality. These days, most apps look pretty good. Customers aren’t as easily wowed by a stylish design.

What impresses B2B buyers now? Apps that solve a pain, are efficient and reliable, and have support when you need it. Focus on those things first; don’t worry about flair.

Want to hear more?

Thank you for reading this post! If you’d like to hear more of my musings on products, business and marketing you can:

Published on April 18, 2013

If you work with pixels you should be thankful

Months ago, while exiting my office, I ran into a man installing carpet in the hallway. On his hands and knees, he was applying glue to the floor, and then carefully affixing the carpet tiles.

We’d made small talk before.  I asked: “How are you doing today?”

“I’d trade jobs with you in a second” he responded.


Published on August 17, 2012

Meshwest Edmonton


Meshwest in Edmonton

Yesterday I attended the Meshwest conference in Edmonton. Meshwest is a uniquely Canadian tech conference, birthed out of the Mesh conference in Toronto.

I think it’s a great conference, with a great concept. It’s biggest challenge is that most folks in Edmonton didn’t know about it, or understand what it was about, or who it was for.

What the hell is Mesh?

Mike McDerment, one of the organizers, compared Mesh to the TED talks: find the most interesting Canadians involved in technology and put them on stage. However, instead of delivering a keynote speech, the speakers are made accessible to the audience, who can start asking questions almost immediately. A moderator kicks things off with interview questions, but the best “Mesh moments” occur when the audience interacts with the speaker directly (or asks questions via Twitter). While a panel isn’t as dramatic as a keynote talk, the interaction between the host, the speaker and the audience is much more valuable.


Published on October 5, 2011

My rant on customer support for web apps

This is me with customer support rage

This is me with customer support rage

Update: I’ve created a follow-up to this post here.

I am employed by a software company.  Offering great customer support is baked into our culture. So when I go out and purchase other software services, I (foolishly) expect to receive the same level of service that we offer our customers.  And then reality slaps me in the face. This is the story of  my yesterday.


Published on September 23, 2011