It seems like every developer wants to start a SaaS business. Who wouldn't want to build software once and charge for it over and over again?
The problem is that building, launching, and growing a successful SaaS is really difficult, especially if you're tying to build a solo/small self-funded business.
As developers who enjoy building software, it can be easy to overlook other opportunities. I'm here to talk about one in particular, which I call "research as a service."
Research as a service
People spend a lot of time & effort researching things online, especially when making big decisions like picking a city to move to, university course, car to buy etc.
"Research as a service" products centralise & organise information in a way that lets people make quicker, more informed decisions.
Trying to decide which city to move to next? NomadList gives you a whole lot of filterable & sortable information about large cities around the world. Easily compare cost of living, internet speeds, air quality, etc. This example is monetized through ads, premium features, a paid community, and a related job board.
Trying to find the ideal engineering team to work with? KeyValues lets you discover companies based on the values they consider to be important. For example, if you're interested in working at a company that promotes from within and is design driven, you can easily find companies that match your values with KeyValues. This example is monetized by charging companies to have their profile created and listed on the site.
Designing a key user flow for your product (onboarding, upgrading, inviting friends etc)? Page Flows lets you see how popular products handle those user flows so you can see what you've missed or what could be improved. This example (my very own) makes money by charging people to access the library of user flow recordings.
Not sure which credit card you should choose? NerdWallet is a huge business that's all about helping you choose the right financial products (credit cards, insurance etc). It makes money from affiliate sales and lead generation (when someone choses a financial product through NerdWallet, the chosen financial institution pays NerdWallet).
Trying to figure out how a team is structured so you have a better idea of who to contact when trying to pitch a product or make a sale? Find that companies organization chart on The Org. I have no idea how this site is monetized, but I'm certain that people who work in sales would be happy to pay for this type of information about their target customers.
Running a web design or service based agency of some sort and spending a lot of time looking for the ideal potential customers? Every month, Cyberleads sends you a list of companies who have just raised money and are likely looking to work with agencies like yours. Cyberleads makes money by charging agencies for access to their lists & monthly emails.
RaaS vs SaaS
Now that you understand what I mean when I talk about research-as-a-service (RaaS), I'll explain why I think they're a solid alternative for developers who want to build small lifestyle businesses.
Quick to get started
It is possible to build a minimal SaaS proof of concept or even start selling without building anything at all, but for most developers, it's super tempting to jump right into the code and get stuck in a cycle of adding features before getting anything in front of potential customers.
That's less of a risk when building content products as there's only so much coding you can justify when the core of your product is data. NomadList, for example, started out as a Google Sheet. You can quickly test out RaaS concepts using spreadsheets, Tweets, videos etc.
You're probably already researching something at the moment. Just compile the results of that research onto a Google Doc/Sheet and share it with people who might find it useful.
Uptime matters less
If you are fortunate enough to ship a SaaS that gets traction, keeping it up and running will be important, especially if customers are relying on it for business critical tasks.
If you build some sort of content product that becomes popular, it's way easier to keep it online and even if it does go down for a couple of hours, it's probably not a big issue.
Some marketing is built into the product
When people search for cities with fast internet, NomadList is in the results. If they search for which credit card is best for self employed people, NerdWallet is in the results. People looking for Apple's org chart will come across The Org. You get the point.
These types of products have some built-in marketing, whereas with most SaaS companies, you need to work on the product as well as on marketing.
Developers can flex their skills and creativity
As developers, it's way easier for you to build more creative forms of content then it is for less technical people using off-the-shelf tools like Wordpress.
This can be helpful for generating content (scraping, for example), creating better experiences (better ways to sort/filter, video players with niche specific features, etc) as well as for marketing/growth.
For example, it would be fairly trivial for you to for you to use your data to automatically generate a bunch of useful pages that would expand your long-tail search footprint.
If your site was for helping people decide which laptop to buy, you could use the same data set to generate pages for: "best laptops for video editing, best laptops for browsing, best laptops for photoshop, cheapest laptops for photoshop, x laptop vs y laptop, alternative to y laptop, how big is x laptop etc etc."
Content products compound over time. The more relevant research content you add, the more valuable it becomes and the harder it is for people to compete with you.
There are, of course, some areas where SaaS really shines, but I'm trying to make the point that developers who are interested in starting a businesses should consider RaaS as a solid option and should keep an eye out for RaaS opportunities.
When you find yourself opening a billion tabs while spending days trying to research something, there's likely an opportunity to make that research process easier for others.
Personally, I'm putting my money where my mouth is and will be focussing on building, launching, and growing RaaS products for the foreseeable.
Nov. 24, 2020