Nomads in the desert

Using WooCommerce to Build a SaaS in 3 Days

By Kirby Prickett on February 4, 2015 — 11 mins read

Bryce Adams is a WooThemes ninja who—in his spare time—built a handy little SaaS (Software as a Service) business called Nomad SMS.

Nomad SMS allows you to easily create a local phone number in over 15 countries and receive SMS messages to that number in your inbox and online. Anybody who’s had the frustrating experience of being locked out of their bank account while traveling or overseas will see the benefit of this simple idea.

Bryce got some love from WooThemes and others on Twitter for Nomad SMS, but when it was featured on the hot product aggregation site Product Hunt, traffic to Bryce’s little side project really took off.

Bryce was kind enough to talk to me about the whirlwind experience of building Nomad SMS in three days—using WooCommerce and Subscriptions—and releasing it to the world.

Nomad SMS

Kirby: It’s a very good endorsement if you choose build WooCommerce businesses in your own time, isn’t it?

Bryce: Yeah for sure.

It also helps us do our jobs. You’d be surprised, there are just so many products we have to support. There are around 400 now and it’s really hard to get the chance to use all of them. But sitting down and building—even if it’s a fake site—just for the experience of setting up the site, I think you learn a lot from that.

So I recommend it to a lot of other WooThemes people, just saying: “If you’ve got time, spend an hour, imagine you are setting up a store for your own product, and actually go through the same process that a customer would go through and you’ll learn so much in that process.”

Kirby: Did any other businesses inspire you to start to build Nomad SMS or were you just solving your own problem?

Bryce: Yeah exactly [just solving my own problem].

I just literally wanted to get a bank transfer, so needed an SMS from NAB [National Australia Bank]. And it kept saying: “No, you need an Australian number.”

It was getting really frustrating, because I eventually had to use my Mum’s phone number. I’m sending her an email every time saying: “Hey, you’re going to get a code in a minute, I need it right now.”

It was not a nice process and was annoying for her. And if I couldn’t contact her I couldn’t get my money.

So I had this problem and I was just thinking about how I could solve it.

And then when I found the solution, it wasn’t too complicated. I could build it for myself, but then I realised it had value for other people. So I decided to turn it into a product.

Kirby: When I first saw it, I thought: “Oh my gosh, why hasn’t anyone done this before? It’s so obvious.” Were you surprised that no-one else had built it first?

Bryce: You know, when you first have an idea for a product you investigate the competition and stuff like that. But originally I just had the problem and I was looking for a solution.

I just kept searching receive Australian SMS in Thailand or receive [Australian SMS] online. And there was really nothing, I couldn’t believe it.

There were lots of ways to send a message online, not to receive them. And that just sort of blew me away. So the first thing I’m thinking is: “Maybe it’s just not possible.”

But then I looked into Twilio—which is the company I buy the phone numbers from— and it turns out they’ve got a really good API for this.

So basically what Nomad SMS is doing is this. Someone goes to the homepage. They just say their country. And then I ask Twilio, through the API: “For this country, can you give me give me phone numbers that I can purchase that are available?”

Once someone selects that number, I just add a product (a phone number) to the cart. I also add a couple of product details; the phone number and the country.

The phone number is just a subscription product. Actually it’s a variable subscription product, because for the different countries there is different pricing.

Then, someone just completes the checkout.  On the checkout, I just go: “Okay you’ve paid,” and then I purchase the number and set it all up for them in the code.

I think there’s only one hook I needed, which is like something that basically says: “When a subscription starts, do this.”

That’s really cool, because I always advocate people using WooCommerce as a platform for SaaS.

Bryce Adams eating hotpot

Kirby: How did you end up on Product Hunt?

Bryce: Good question. That was really lucky I guess.

I’d been a member sort of since it went public. That gave me a bit of an advantage because I have comment access.

We eventually got WooCommerce on there, which was really cool. I was labeled as one of the people behind that on the site, so that also gave me a bit of an advantage, I think. I don’t really know how their formula works.

When I submitted Nomad SMS myself… I sort of just did it because it was ready, and I knew it worked. I still wanted to put more effort into it and improve it a bit. But at that point I was just really excited that it was working and out there, so I just decided I would submit it. It might have taken a little bit of time to get live on their website, so I figured it’s better to do it earlier rather than later.

But I guess because I’d already done stuff on that site before, it got a little bit more priority.

I also sent a tweet to the founder, to say: “Hey, I just submitted the first product that I built to Product Hunt, I’m really excited to see what people think.” He replied straight away saying: “Yeah it’s going to be featured tomorrow.”

So I’m not sure if that helped, but that was really cool.

The thing is with Product Hunt, you’re not going to get a lot of business from it. It’s not going to make you a lot of money, because it’s just a short spurt of a lot of people. But it’s really cool to get exposed to that group; investors and a lot of really influential people. I had some Product Hunt employees purchasing numbers, which was really cool. It’s a nice experience to get that feedback, which is really, really valuable. People criticising something and asking why you’ve done something this way. That’s where I think the value of getting on Product Hunt is.

Kirby: So would you encourage other people to try to get on there quickly [after they launch]?

Yeah definitely, if they’ve got a good product. I’ve seen a lot of different subscription products go in there, like the food subscriptions, similar to my candy one. There was like a kimchi one, which was really cool. A monthly kimchi subscription. Now I’m pretty sure that uses WooCommerce and Subscriptions. [Kirby: It does].

I think, if someone’s got something unique that would interest people, especially in that tech community, I think they should [submit it].

I know there are a lot of people that get disappointed when their products don’t get featured on there. I’ve done that, where I’ve submitted something and it never got on there. You realise, they’re really only looking for very exciting stuff that they haven’t seen before.

That’s why it took a long time for WooCommerce to even get featured on there, because people weren’t too excited by it. They were like: “Well it’s eCommerce software, it’s not that special.” So it can be a bit hard like that.

But if someone’s got something cool, I’d definitely recommend at least trying. There’s no harm done.

Kirby: In your blog post about building Nomad SMS, you listed some of the mistakes you made. Do you have any thoughts or advice on how you could have minimised these mistakes, or do you think they are just part of the process?

Bryce: I knew they were going to happen before I started it. I knew they were happening while they were happening.

So there were probably things I could have done to minimise them. But I do think they are a part of the process.

However, I’m now working on another side project, because I can’t help myself—this one I’m pretty excited about—it’s also going to be a SaaS. I’m going to be reusing a lot of the same stuff I did with Nomad SMS, with regards to the code. I’m definitely looking at those mistakes [for this project].

Capturing emails… that was really bad. Because I still haven’t even done that. I had 4,000-5,000 people on the site within the day, and I could have maybe gotten 10% of their emails. That would be 400-500 emails, which I could now send an email to saying: “Look I’ve got these new countries, or I’m doing a discount for Valentines Day.”

But I didn’t do that, and that was probably my biggest mistake. I’m definitely not going to make that same mistake again.

Bryce Adams

Kirby: Are you willing to tell me how many customers you have now?

Bryce: Sure, sure. I try to be really transparent with this stuff, so hopefully at the end of the year when I do a Year in Review, I’ll say the numbers as well, publicly. I really like being transparent with it.

There are about 20 subscriptions. Probably the majority happened in the first two or three days. And then there were a couple after.

At this point, I feel like if I want to keep growing it, probably the best thing I could do now is to start contacting news websites about it. And try to get people writing articles about it, because that’s how you actually get the mainstream public to use it.

When it goes on Product Hunt, that’s not my perfect customer. It’s just people that are really interested in it, they might say it’s cool, but they’re not going to actually need it.

Another group is the nomad community, getting them more involved with it. At the moment I don’t want to push it too much, because I want to focus on the other projects I’ve already started. I have too many things [going] at once. Definitely throughout the year I plan on doing that.

I was really happy with the response, I didn’t think I’d get more than a couple of people signing up. But it’s really cool to see 20 people sign up and use it and get value from it.

Kirby: How much of your time is it taking up at the moment?

Bryce: Zero, yeah, nothing.

I just set it up and I really haven’t touched it since then. There was this one thing, I really stressed this in the article, the idea of MVP: a Minimum Viable Product. So just getting something that I know works and releasing it. When I released it, it wasn’t even finished completely.

If someone subscribes and purchases a number, a lot of people will do that just for the month. So they’ll buy the number and the next day they’ll cancel their subscription, because they don’t want to get charged again. But they still want to use the number because they paid for the month.

That wasn’t something that I did when I launched it, just because it would take me extra time to write the code to cancel the number. So in my mind I was thinking: “Okay, I’ve got someone who canceled their subscription, I’ll make a calendar reminder a month from now—when their subscription will have ended—to manually cancel the phone number.”

I really advise people to do that, and I don’t think it’s a big issue.

So since then I haven’t really done anything. The cool thing is trying to automate everything. Ideally I can get it to the point where, if I could generate, you know, maybe 100 customers a month, I don’t even really need new ones. It’d be nice to grow maybe 10% per month, but the great thing about the idea of a subscription is that they are paying me every month.

Let’s say I get 20 customers and they’re all paying me $5 each. I’m not really getting $100, I’m getting $100 a month. So I really try to look at it like that. So every new customer isn’t $5, it’s $60 over the year and maybe more. So if I can just automate that, it becomes a really cool business.

As the world becomes smaller, and security measures like Two-Factor Authentication become more common, more of us are going to run into trouble accessing our secure accounts while overseas. 

So we need scrappy entrepreneurs like Bryce to build us simple, elegant solutions during their nights and weekends. Luckily Bryce, as a WooThemes ninja, knew just the right tools for the job: WooCommerce and Subscriptions.

Now that he’s got the mini-SaaS bug, I can’t wait to see what he (and you) builds next.  

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