Post written by guest blogger Alli McKee. 

This year’s SaaStr made it clear: there is more growth – and competition – than ever. This doesn’t come as a surprise, of course. But it is one thing to read about it, and another to experience it live in the crowded halls of the Hilton.

Walking through the Expo Hall offered an opportunity to learn from the best companies out there, but it also gave a visceral sense of the information overload your buyers face every day in their inboxes. In 2018, how can we separate signal from the noise?


What it takes to become a SaaS Unicorn in 2018

From conversations and sessions at SaaStr, it became clear that many of us are struggling to solve the same problems. Customers want more, faster, and it’s harder to reach them and harder to stand out once you do. But over the course of the week, three key themes emerged:

  1. Build with focus.
  2. Differentiate with bold decisions.
  3. Develop your mindset.

Build with Focus

In Tuesday’s “Product Strategy at Scale” session, Des Traynor nailed it with the simple message on the importance of strategy. “Decisions are the currency of startups,” he said, and argued that without strategy you’re signing up for mayhem – especially at scale.

Without strategy, marketing is running campaigns for things that don’t exist, sales is selling products that aren’t feasible, and product is building things that are cool. It’s a mess. Instead, abide by the simple principle: “Build what you sell, and sell what you build.” It’s that easy.

Once you’ve got this strategy, tell your team every day. Your engineers aren’t just refactoring code, they’re [insert mission statement here]. It may sound redundant to you as the leader, but repetition is key here.

Finally, manage the scope creep of your features – especially when it comes to one-off requests from big clients. Don’t let clients drive the roadmap if it derails your strategy. Des is an advocate of the “Scopilocks” Principle: “Build a product small enough to adopt, but big enough to matter.” 16 core features? That’s probably four different products, not one. Focus.

Differentiate with Bold Decisions.

Chatting at the Big Party on Wednesday night at the Masonic, a new connection captured today’s challenge in SaaS sales well:  “If you’re doing the same thing everyone else is doing, you aren’t doing anything at all.”

It sounds counterintuitive in a community geared towards sharing best practices, but it’s true. Connect with others to figure out what they are doing, and then be bold and do something different. Taking a stand means standing out.

That goes for marketing (e.g. Pendo’s hot pink booth)…

…as well as for everyday business decisions. As Michelle Zatlyn discussed in “Founder-to-Founder: 10 Toughest Lessons,” you have to have a point of view. Don’t overanalyze, but instead make a decision and commit. Then, adjust. Founders are judged by the speed of learning, not the quality of their decisions. The worst thing you can do is avoid making one and lose momentum. Be bold.

Develop your mindset.

Despite the speed of SaaS, one theme has emerged this week from listening to founders: This is a long road.

Mike Cannon-Brookes put it well in “Tales of a Modern CEO” on Tuesday with two pieces of advice. First, this is a marathon not a sprint, so don’t let the fast pace of the industry burn you out before you’ve even started.

Second: “Remember that these are the good old days.” Appreciate where you’ve been, and know where you’re going, but don’t forget to appreciate where you are, today. Otherwise, you’ll build a company on nostalgia and the “Back when we were [X]” mentality doesn’t make you happier or more productive in the present.

After this week of helping each other and sharing best practices, perhaps the most important advice I heard this week was from Therese Tucker of Blackline on Thursday morning in “Debunking the Myths about Startup Success.”

“There is no playbook.”

It’s tempting – particularly after a week like this one – to try to bring “best practices” back to your company and copy what has worked for the successful founders speaking to us this week. But here’s the thing. The playbook they used isn’t the playbook – because there is no such thing.

The beauty and challenge of building a SaaS business is that you have to do it in your own way, and build your playbook as you go along. No one else’s will work like yours will, because companies – like people – are unique.

Therese’s closing words capture the journey of starting and building a SaaS company as well as any.

“You will laugh and you will cry. It may not be the best, and it may not be the worst. But one thing I can tell you, is that it won’t be boring.”

About the Author: Alli McKee is the CEO and Founder of, a visual communication platform automating design, starting with presentations for B2B sales and marketing teams.


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