Email automation that meets the challenges of your SaaS business | Jane Portman - CEO Userlist

Author Cristian
Updated Sep 19th, ’22
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What is Userlist?

Jane: Userlist is an email automation email marketing platform similar to whatever, you know, MailChimp, Drip, and ConverKit, but we focus exclusively on serving SaaS companies. So it’s more of a niche product. Our special sauce is serving, for example, company accounts, additional accounts for individual users, and many other cool things. So I’ve been working on this together with my co-founder Benedict from Germany since 2017, and it’s been a long interesting ride.

We help software companies on board, engage their users as well as build their marketing email lists. So basically, solve the classic email automation plot problem. Everything that any size business needs, they actually enjoy it versus some weird hacked-together solution. I would say that it can handle both marketing and lifecycle email. It’s nothing like those crazy big solutions like Intercom that can do everything and the chat or HubSpot that would be another all-in-one. We are a bit more specific and focused on email and in-app notifications.

What are the top three features that our customers love?

Jane: Well, the top one and our unique selling proposition are those company accounts which allow you not just to have a bulk of individual users but also see who the accounts are, segment them, do automation based on accounts, and other cool things. That would be definitely one. We have an interesting channel and additional email that is called in-app notifications. That would be another cool feature. And I’m hoping that overall simplicity is another cool thing that attracts founders because we don’t have to serve all types of businesses, we can allow ourselves to be more focused and more lightweight to use. So that would be number three.

The four types of email a SaaS company needs

There are different ways of automating email. So the most traditional is marketing email which requires opt-in to be subscribed. Usually, you would sign up for lead magnets and things like that. So building your marketing email list kind of stands in the middle. Before that goes a cold outreach, it doesn’t ask for an opt-in, mimics individual email, and requires even a different domain to send from because it’s completely unsolicited. It’s a different mechanic, you’re not asking for an option, and it’s a different kind of relationship with a cold lead. And on the other side of the spectrum goes the lifecycle email. And again, there you don’t need the opt-in because these people are your customers. So you’re already in a relationship with them when they signed up for your product. So these are like three stages called outreach. Then go marketing, email, and lifecycle email. I would also like to point out that there is transactional email, which is another email service that every SaaS company needs, that needs to send out password resets invoices, things like that, like new comment notifications if you’re providing that or something like that. This type of email also needs another platform’s special separate service because those need to be delivered instantly. So the speed of delivery is factor number one. And that cannot be done through traditional marketing because marketing software processes a lot of data, they calculate segments and do other things. They don’t really provide instant delivery. It’s a different goal, different software. So as you can see, a SaaS company actually needs like four types of email.

What we are trying to do is to educate people and then serve them. A big part of what we do during demos is basically decomposing and understanding people’s situations, what they currently do, and trying to see what pieces of the puzzle are missing and if we can help them solve them. So it’s always a lot of demystifying.

Userlist successful use cases

Jane: I’ll just name-drop some of our customers. So there’s Savvycal, a scheduling platform that is slowly replacing Calendly across the web. That is one big name. Another one is a podcasting platform called Transistor FM. One of the famous ones is Toggl, the time tracking software. So Toggl is our customer, and so we use Clockify. It’s another time-tracking tool. So they have been with us and are one of our big names.

They use our software to send their onboarding emails as the primary use case and also the rest of the lifecycle email. Everything that happens after the sign-up.

Userlist pricing plans

Jane: We do offer a free trial, it’s a typical practice, but we are asking for a credit card upfront, so it’s not like basically the friction to get started is so high that a credit card doesn’t hurt. And also, just looking at the blank trial doesn’t really make you instantly a good user. There is always that investment of setting up the integration and then setting up the segments and the campaign. So it’s all a big educational ride, and our general acquisition strategy is to spread the word, educate people out there on best practices when it comes to lifecycle email and whenever they’re ready to invest in switching platforms, and they think that useless is a good solution, then our name will be on the table, and then they will come to us and start a trial. Then our customer success team can help them. So that’s the dynamics we work with.

Also, we’ve recently updated our pricing. So our lower tier starts at $149, which basically includes everything a SaaS company would need. But our primary unique selling point, the company counts, is locked to the more expensive plan, which starts at $499. So that requires more setup, more individual attention from our customer success, and a bit more intricate setup because there are multiple data integration layers. So we prefer to serve it as a higher pricing tier. The common notion these days is that when somebody arrives at your SaaS website, they would very often skip on the home page and go straight to the pricing page so that they can just understand what it is about and what’s the price like as an indicator of quality and everything. So we try to make it, so our pricing grid makes our key features stand out really well. So we explained that this is software about company counts, which is why we’re charging you that money.

Why did you start the company?

Jane: As a founder, this is the second SaaS product that I’m working on. The previous one was called a generic productivity tool called Penny Reminder. Benedict, my co-founder, was then my engineer for hire. So we had worked together before, and when we did that, there was obviously a lack of a tool that could do well. Behavior-based email for SaaS and also in-app notifications was another thing I wanted to show, behavior-driven in-app messages. Intercom was the only obvious solution back then, and it was expensive. And it was before the redesign, it wasn’t even beautiful as it is today. So it was like a no-brainer to pick that. And we decided to build an alternative. And we never thought that we would end up being an email marketing platform.

Are you VC backed?

Jane: We raised some funds, but we’re not VC back, but we have raised two small rounds of funding. One was in 2020, just as the pandemic was in full swing in March, we were joining TinySeed, the accelerator for bootstrap startups. So we did that in 2020. That was great. And then we did another angel round last year. We raised funds from 22 angel investors. So we now have an amazing crew of advisors on board as a result. But yeah, it might be raising in the future. We’re fine with the angel funding plus the revenue we’re getting now, so we should be getting there. And it’s pretty cool that we don’t have to raise in 2022 because the climate is not amazing this year.

How do you find angel investors?

Jane: It’s a lot of legwork, like any fundraising, so we could have gotten maybe similar checks from a couple of bigger companies. But it just so happened that many people wanted to support us across the network, so we just took it as is, and that’s how we ended up with such a large number. In terms of the mechanics, for advisors, it was on a safe note. So it’s really nice tool that makes it simple in terms of the agreement, so there are no specific obligations. So it’s not really scary to take those people on board because there are no voting rights or anything. We’re not sacrificing our freedom really with this.

We are now six people on the team. Originally we were three co-founders, so we were supposed to be a sort of Swiss Army knife kind of team between me doing design and marketing and my co-founder Benedict is an amazing engineer. And there was also a third marketing co-founder, Claire, who then left on friendly terms after about one year. So there are two of us at the moment on the founding team.

A piece of advice for co-founders

Jane: Treat it like a marriage, and always think about your prenup before and while you’re still on good terms. Having all those mechanisms in places, such as vesting and they co-found the agreement, and everything allowed us to part ways on very friendly terms and make a difference between investing like gaining equity and doing operational work. So founders very often forget that, especially after vesting is over, the operational work should be rewarded for what they actually do. So it’s another thing to think about. So salary and equity to different stories that make them things like that should be discussed before starting and put on a paper because you don’t know how the heat at the moment can damage that.

What’s your favorite software?

Jane: There are two tools I discovered last year that we’re both delighted to use. One is called Pitch, the software for designing presentations. I needed a slide deck or something, and I was like, there should be a better solution than Google Docs, Google Slides, or whatever. They should be more SaaS for this. And that’s how I found Pitch. I’m absolutely delighted by their software. And they have amazing templates, so it’s a complete design-driven business. And I’m a UX person. It’s hard to inspire me with templates or presentation design, so kudos to them.

Another one is called Livestorm. I think they’re having a take on Zoom at some angle. So it’s software for meetings and webinars. We use them for webinars. I know they can do more than that. Their interface in their design, again, is, once again, modern standard. So really enjoying them for our monthly workshops.

Notion is lovely, but it’s like no surprise. It’s probably half of your listeners using Notion for their internal docs. It’s great. Really takes the pain away from creating new pages and stuff. It’s pretty quick to use because we were using Google Docs more previously, and it’s such a pain to barely start a new document. You have to, wait, while a Notion just makes everything easier. However, we still use Google Docs in publishing flows because it’s the best tool for suggested edits. Unfortunately, there is no other that we know about at the moment.

Jane also hosts 2 podcasts

Jane: So one of the shows is a big old design podcast, UI Breakfast. I’ve been running that since 2014, and it’s been growing exponentially, but not for the first five years. Basically, at the moment, we are approaching 3 million all-time downloads. I don’t know it took six or seven years to get to the first million, and then another maybe a year to get to the second million. So you can imagine how the compound effect just works over time. I’m really proud to be the host of that. We right now publish every two weeks.

And the other is a fresher new show that we publish on Userlist. It’s called Better Done Than Perfect. We focus more on email and SaaS matters, which are beautifully produced. We have amazing show notes, which are executive-free, cap written, and it’s great to have a platform for making business friends, inviting guests, et cetera. And the name of it, Better Done Than Perfect, symbolizes a lot to both me and Benedict. I even have a tattoo that says bdtp here because we are both sorts of recovering perfectionists, and unfortunately, the SaaS game has taught us that most times, it’s more important to ship the working version versus trying to polish it until next Christmas or something. So that’s what we’re trying to do here.

Watch the podcast

You can watch the podcast right below.