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Bootstrapping to 8.5+ million end users
Inside Uscreen’s journey to $20 million ARR and beyond
This startup has gone from creator economy pioneer to the poster child of a successful bootstrapped product-led SaaS business.
I’m talking about Uscreen, which helps video-based entrepreneurs and creators monetize their content. You might not have heard of Uscreen, although the odds are high that you’ve interacted with its products in some way, shape or form.
Here’s a quick rundown:
Founded in 2015 by PJ Taei, an immigrant, college dropout and founder (x2)
Used by 25,000+ creators and supporting 8.5+ million end users in 95 countries
Bootstrapped to $20 million ARR and 140 employees (and growing!)
PJ was kind enough to share Uscreen’s incredible journey with Growth Unhinged readers. Read on to learn why bootstrapped companies tend to be product-led from the beginning, the early playbook for betting on SEO to keep customer acquisition costs low, and Uscreen’s recent decision to lift the credit card requirement from its free trial (even though it caused an immediate 40% hit to new self-service MRR).
👋 Hi, I’m Kyle from OpenView and welcome to my newsletter, Growth Unhinged. Every week I explore the playbooks behind the fastest growing startups from Airtable to Zapier. Join 19,000+ founders, investors and practitioners for an unorthodox take on how to scale faster.
KP: Could you walk through Uscreen’s origin story and your decision to bootstrap?
Before starting Uscreen in 2015, I’d founded a web hosting company that I operated for over a decade. Around 2012, we were constantly getting requests from customers who wanted to stream and host videos. Facebook was claiming that, by 2020, 80% of internet traffic would be video. The writing was on the wall that video was about to explode.
Another sign was YouTube’s growing popularity. I kept thinking to myself, “it takes time and energy and money to produce good videos, will videos continue to just be free on Youtube?”
Eventually, creators would want to monetize videos, I really had to look ahead. It wasn’t until 2017/2018 that the industry finally caught up and monetization of content became mainstream. Of course, COVID further accelerated this adoption.
I migrated here when I was seven years old. With my immigrant mentality, I don’t borrow or spend money lightly. That’s just engraved in how I was raised. So when I started my first company, the web hosting business, the thought of raising money was never even an option. A decade later when I started Uscreen, I had this drive to want to make it work without external capital. It was really just a challenge for me, and I love challenges, so I pushed myself to continue down the bootstrap path.
KP: What decisions did you make that set you up for profitable growth?
The first couple of years at Uscreen were very difficult. We were entering into a very early market. There were many times I questioned if I made the right move. This was frustrating but it got us to move slower while listening to our users carefully, which then made our product better day by day.
Early on, using the power of SEO and leveraging our blog for thought leadership really got us off the ground. I pushed SEO very hard at Uscreen, especially in our earlier years.
If you're resourceful and use the right tools, you can find amazing writers at great prices. Then you can leverage search to acquire customers at extremely affordable prices. This was the engine that got us started for the first few years.
KP: Could you share your winning SEO playbook?
SEO tools and tactics
While there is an abundance of tools to use around SEO, we mostly relied on Google’s keyword research tool as well as Ahrefs to drill down even further. The key is you have to really do five things to make sure SEO performs well:
Write good content that educates and your audience wants to read and learn from.
Do good keyword research and find the right keywords to write about.
Make sure your on-page SEO is on point, meaning your website is fast, bounce rates are reasonable, and you keep improving the page. (Ahrefs, by the way, gives you a nice report of ways to improve your page.)
Do organic outbound, meaning go out to related blogs and other websites with strong domain authority and build links (meaning get them to link to you and you link to them). This will give your website more power and Google will begin to see your website as an authority.
Keep at it. It’s a long play, but pays off!
Sourcing writers for SEO
Just like any other hire, you have to be picky. Take your time to research and read the pieces that writers send you. It’s time consuming but worth it.
When hiring I always look for candidates who are looking to work with us long term and they also care about what we care about, which is helping our creators be successful and own their audience. We need the new hires to connect with this mission especially when it comes to writing and thought leadership. This way they are motivated to challenge themselves and offer value to creators with the content they put out.
KP: What does product-led growth (PLG) mean for Uscreen?
The historical and current meaning of PLG within our business is rapidly evolving. What it will always mean at its core is that we are in the business of helping creators own their own membership business. We are both their partner and their one neck to choke. We build features and tools and partner with them to grow their businesses. When they succeed, we succeed and then more people find out and we grow – both with them and to more creators.
Bootstrapped companies, Uscreen no exception, are forced to be product-led by nature. The constraint of bootstrapped and finite resources forced us to intimately know our customers, understand their needs and focus on helping their businesses be successful.
We could not afford to focus on brute-forcing sales unprofitably. We had to win with product so our platform largely had to market itself. When we did invest in marketing, we also focused on delivering value, not on spending money to shout our message out. Our strategy sounds simple, but we really just allocated 85% of our resources to engineering and product. We focused on building out features users requested that we believed would help them grow their businesses.
This worked because we listened to customers and had a killer CTO and engineering team. Honestly, we happened to be at the right place and at the right time with the pandemic. By the time the pandemic hit we had a full-featured product that sold itself and an organic growth engine that was already primed with useful content for people looking to move their businesses towards video memberships.
PLG, to us, really starts at the resource allocation level – resourcing as much as we can towards product and engineering.
50% should be big product roadmap features delivering on product vision and constantly reshaped by understanding core users’ needs
50% should be some combination of responding to customer needs and solving UX issues evident from customers interactions with the product.
In our early days we were probably 80% responding to customer needs. As the product has become more full featured, we are starting to shift towards solving more UX needs. That’s because the platform is both more robust and more complicated, plus the market is getting more crowded.
With a very stable product-market fit and a large swath of data, we are evolving our approach by bringing in data and growth experts to take a more data-driven approach in our next phase. We have a lot of successful customers that we can learn from and scale learnings to other new users.
KP: Let’s shift gears to pricing. How did you land on a usage-based pricing model (charging $0.50 per subscriber)?
We knew it was critical to align the value the customer receives with the value we get. This sets us up to continue orienting the company and product around helping our creators drive revenue and be successful.
The issue is our value prop is about helping creators own their business, their audience, their payments. This made taking a percentage feel wrong and not like the right move for us. The $.50 per paid sub was low enough that the value exchange felt right for the creators but enough so we can grow with customers.
We might make some changes because we think we need to drive higher correlation between our success and customer success, but it was a great starting point and definitely set us apart from the competition.
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KP: How about your free trial motion rather than fully freemium?
We are still doing some learning here. It was definitely the right move for us at the time. Ultimately, our customers are launching businesses. They need to be serious about this. There is only so much they can do in that short window without talking to someone at all. At the time it really forced our users to do their homework and commit.
The trial filtered for those willing to put down a credit card and put in intensive work over the 14-day trial period. That created good friction on the front end of the experience, filtering down to customers who were serious and creating a time crunch that intensified their usage per day.
That said, the credit card required trial also had negative consequences that we learned from. Some people who would bill through were not super committed. We looked at the retention data and decided that this was not best for the customers.
We recently lifted the credit card requirement to improve retention at the expense of new MRR. This cut new MRR from our self service plans by 40%. We can afford that because we are profitable and we have no Board. Prioritizing for our customers, retention and the long haul is an easy choice.
Making a call like this was only possible because we are bootstrapped:
We looked at the data.
Saw it was not in the best interest of our customers
We made the call and ripped it out 3 weeks after making the decision
We are now starting to make the money back on retention. Removing the dollars that had a poor correlation coefficient with value has let us optimize around our best customers. The equation is much simpler now. Deliver more value before the paywall and make more revenue that comes out the backend with a much higher multiple. Most importantly, this is a path to a higher density of happy customers.
We still have a lot more work to do around delivering that value early but we will be experimenting with some bigger changes soon. Keep an eye on us. More fun things to come ; )
KP: What’s the role of sales and customer success in Uscreen’s PLG approach?
Being product-led is all about building the buying experience around the end user. Many of our customers need help from someone on our team for us to achieve this. They are starting their business on or moving it to our platform. That’s a large commitment that often requires building a relationship.
We have built a culture around advocating for our prospects and helping them make the right decision for them–even if that means going with someone else. What most companies call Account Executives, we call Creator Advocates. This focuses that culture on interactions that are about understanding customer needs and on building relationships over selling.
This culture allowed us to scale my early stage learnings about the importance of building intimate relationships with clients, then using their feedback to improve the product. The feedback powers a significant part of the growth loop that improves the product and attracts new customers. It only works with sales leaders that are in it for the company and not just their quota.
Our creator advocates are essentially user researchers. The compensation structure encourages them to thrive by developing their ability to understand the customer buying journey. What our sales team learns is critical to us and we value it. I’ve learned that the sales function can be the ultimate growth user research engine when everyone plays on the same team. There is a growth flywheel to spin up within a product led culture. It often starts with sales and truly understanding what the right customers for the product value.
Our use of sales is evolving with this knowledge. We recently shifted towards quantifying activation to ensure users really get to “aha” first before anything remotely salesy comes into the conversation. We have also found recent success with fun new tools to showcase personalized versions of the product, courtesy of a newly dedicated growth PM, and are excited for what is coming next.
KP: Do you have any closing advice for aspiring founders?
Do your research, and rely on data, but also your intuition. Once you make a decision, move forward.
I love the book The Startup Owner’s Manual by Steve Blank. He talks about the importance of business owners, and the founder specifically, getting out of the building and speaking to potential clients. That’s how you learn and iterate quickly. My advice is speak to your potential clients early on, iterate quickly and be resourceful.
If you plan on bootstrapping, every dollar counts. Think twice before you spend it. This is a completely different mindset and muscle, but you can build it quickly if you’re committed to it.