Deep in the trenches: December 2nd 2020
Chatting with Ashutosh from Sunsama
We’ll continue this week with an interview of an other early stage startup founder. The interview is longer than last one, let me know which format you prefer!
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📣 Introducing Ashutosh Priyadarshy from Sunsama
I’m particularly excited to release this newsletter. Sunsama is a great product, and Ashutosh is a thoughtful leader I’ve learned a lot from. Their persistence building this product and finding product market fit is admirable.
I believe you’ll learn things as well. Questions are from me, quotes are answers from Ashutosh and the text below the quotes are additional comments from me. Emphasis on Ashutosh’s words are mine as well. Let’s go 👇
What is Sunsama?
Sunsama is a daily planner for busy professionals. Each day, Sunsama guides you create a calm and focused plan for the day. Sunsama gives you a single view of your daily work by pulling together calendars, emails, and tasks from all your SaaS tools in one place.
Could you give an indication of your stage?
Seed Stage; ~3.0M Raised; 40K MRR; Team of 5
40K MRR for a 5 people team is pretty impressive, especially in a category where people are pretty demanding.
How did you make your way to the world of startups?
In college, I worked at some research labs on interesting technical problems but I always wanted to build things that made people a better version of themselves instead of algorithms that solve technical problems more efficiently.
How do you define product market fit and do you have it?
I think Product Market Fit is when exponential growth is the default behavior of your system.
We do not have that kind of growth. We've achieved PMF on a variety of common measures. For example, more than 40% of customers would be "Very Disappointed" if they could no longer use Sunsama if we use the Sean Ellis/Superhuman methodology. If you prefer David Sack's method, we've exceeded 50% DAU/MAU for customers.
I like this idea of multiple stages to Product Market Fit
Early product market fit: 10 unaffiliated customers if you’re B2B (Jason Lemkin definition)
Complete product market fit. Everything is breaking and you’re growing like crazy. Marc Andreessen definition
By the way, Ashutosh is being modest here, at 40k MRR (and a few thousand customers), Sunsama definitely has product market fit.
How did you get your first 100 users?
We got our first 100 users from ProductHunt but to get our first 100 customers we had to manually onboard customers and make the product paid only. We basically got rid of the sign up page and changed it so that you had to book a call, pay, and then get onboarded by us.
Did you struggle to get your first 100 users before you started charging? And do you think it was because you made it free?
Actually, we did not struggle to get people to sign up and create accounts and engage with the product initially. What we struggled to do was to activate users into long term users who understood the value of the product and would use it everyday. One of the interesting things about a productivity product is that it's almost too easy to get people to give it a shot. The hard part is getting them to stick around. This behavior might be inverted for something like a banking product, where it's hard to get someone to get someone signed up but they probably won't leave. As a result, we've invested months and months on our onboarding experience and first time user experience so that our first time users understand the product's value and stick around.
If your product is free, potential customers are going to think the product has no value. In the case of a productivity product where most products are free, pricing sets expectations about the product and also differentiates it from competitors.
As an early stage founder, you always think your product is bad (to be fair, it’s true most of the time). As a result, you’ll want to discount it or make it free. Pricing high is one of the most counterintuitive things you have to do as an entrepreneur.
This is also Marc Andreessen’s advice on this very good Tim Ferriss’ podcast.
I know your journey to Product Market fit was hard and long. You've explored multiple products and started working on Sunsama several years ago. Could you tell us more about the journey and what you've learnt?
Yes, we've been building this company for almost seven years. The first five years were very challenging. All we knew is that we wanted to explore the question "how can we spend our time at work thoughtfully and intentionally". The first five years, we built, launched, and shut down six different products. Along the way, we talked with hundreds of early users about their work, their tools, and developed an intuition for how people worked across a wide variety of roles, companies, etc. It was this intuition that helped us build Sunsama as it is now.
Huge respect to Ashutosh and his cofounder’s persistence here. Keeping at it for so long is strong!
Here's my short list of things I learned:
It's really hard to know if you are building something people want, they'll lie to you (but not on purpose), but once you start to figure it out, it gets easier and easier to build things people want.
If users are telling you they need X, Y, Z before they can use your product — that's a bad sign. If users are telling you they need X, Y, Z to use your product more — then you are on the right path.
Absolutely, never build a feature for one customer only, unless it’s something you wanted to build very soon anyway.
Don't ask people to "try your product". Build something that solves a problem where you have enough conviction to ask them to pay you to solve their problem.
Totally agree with this last point. Lots of entrepreneurs wrongly interpret the lean startup movement as just asking what customers want. I strongly think you need to have an opinion and then validate with customers that you’re right.
It's easier to not give up if you think the question or customer problem you are solving is important.
Is there one specific tactic that was very helpful to you, whether it's in finding users, building your product or fundraising that you'd like to share?
Charge for your product up front and charge an uncomfortable amount. When you charge an uncomfortable amount, it pushes you to iterate the product in a direction that justifies that value. There's no way to fake this forcing function without pricing.
What's one thing you wish you had known when you started your company?
Most "startup mistakes" happen because of your ego — spending too much, not listening to customers, hiring too fast, etc.
What's a tool that makes you save time every week or every day?
Paste Clipboard tool for OS X. I use it hundreds of times a day.
I use Alfred’s clipboard tool for the same use, and it’s a huge time saver. If you don’t use a clipboard tool to access easily what you’ve copied in the past, you should get one right now.
What's a favorite book and why?
It's not a book but a short essay — "Of Power and Time" by Mary Oliver. I've read it over and over and each time it gets better. It's a beautiful meditation on the human desire to create.
I'm not familiar with this essay nor with the author. Do you have any specific lesson / point / quote to highlight?
"Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which is aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.
But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley's birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.
It is this internal force — this intimate interrupter — whose tracks I would follow. The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter."
I love re-reading it because it reminds me that creative work is hard and requires a reverence and focus that is not commonplace. And it speaks to my true ideal of productivity, which is not to do more but to create that which I deem worthy of creating and that the challenge is not external circumstance but the stewardship of our own mind and soul. It's a reminder that work, and creative work especially, can be more than a chore but a spiritual exercise.
FYI, the essay is from the book Blue Pastures
One thing I appreciate about Sunsama is that it's more than a product, it seems to me it comes with a philosophy about how to approach work and productivity. What is that philosophy? And what do you think most people miss about personal productivity?
At a metaphysical level, our philosophy is that work is more than just a banal chore but an integral part of human flourishing. The question that got us to work on Sunsama initially was, if work is indeed so integral to life, how can we go about it in a way that's thoughtful and intentional? On a more practical note, Sunsama is built around the idea that if you can be mindful and intentional with what you do today, you'll naturally be thoughtful and intentional about what gets done in the long run.
I think most people focus on doing more instead of doing what matters. We've all got outdated notions of productivity that come from the industrial revolution. I think to be truly productive, you want to live a life where you a producing things you deem to be worthy of producing, not just producing anything.
What did you think of the interview? Feel free to write to Ashutosh or me below in the comments 👇