Starting over with a new SaaS idea w/ Nathan Powell
brian_casel: [00:00:00] It's Open Threads. It's my podcast. I'm Brian Casel. Welcome to it. Back on the show today is my friend Nathan Powell. So we're gonna pick off right where we left off. In my last conversation with Nathan, he had told us about how he essentially quit the internet for a couple of years there after successfully building and then exiting having his co-founder buy him out from a successful SaaS app.
And then he took a whole bunch of time off and now he's back, He's back in the, in the SaaS game. He's exploring new ideas and he's got one that, that seems to have legs. Nathan himself is a UX designer and he's got something really interesting for product managers who are dealing with design files and presenting them to teams and customers and stakeholders and all that. So, really interesting idea, and I love conversations like this where we get to really hash out something while [00:01:00] the entrepreneur, Nathan in this case, is in the early idea stage. He's just talking to customers. We talked about that. We talked about how he's prototyping and how he identified a pain and, you know, getting those very first customers. So yeah, really interesting kind of exciting conversation. I love capturing the moment. You know, just when, when an idea is just coming together. Really, really cool episode here of, Open Threads.
As always, today's episode is brought to you by ZipMessage. That's my product. I've been working on it for almost two years now. And I think it's really great for, you know, async messaging with your clients or your coworkers. I'll tell you a bit more about that later on. For now, let's hear about what Nathan's working on.
Episode two here with, with uh, Nathan Powell. Nathan, good to have you back on.
Nathan Powell: Yeah, man. Great to be here still.
brian_casel: All right, so we were talking in the last episode about how you... [00:02:00] You left Nusii the SaaS that you started and, you know, did really well with for a number of years there, and then exited. You took like a two year plus, hiatus from the internet as a whole. And you seem to resurface in my radar sometime, I think in 2020 or 2021. Yeah, you, you reentered Twitter, but, but you started to explore new product ideas. It looks like new SaaS ideas.
Nathan Powell: Yeah, I realised that the money was running out from from the exit. When I say exit, it sounds very grand, you know, it wasn't that grand obviously, but... Yeah, so you realize things are coming to, to an end, really, and like, what am I gonna do? And so I tried to get back into consulting a bit, and obviously I'm still consulting, UX design. And I tried to get into several businesses. Yeah. Over the last, from 20... So basically when you said I reappeared, that was because I was trying to bring new things together.
brian_casel: Yeah. Well I mean obviously been working. Like you have made several really good connections, you [00:03:00] know?
Nathan Powell: Uh, It is working. It's working. I don't know.
brian_casel: Well, my question is like, okay. First you make the decision to like re-enter the, the web industry or like digital product in whatever you wanna call our industry. Did you know that you eventually wanted to make your way back to let's say a software product or did you think like maybe you just want to do consulting for a while more seriously or something else? Like before you got into product ideas specifically, like was a product actually a thing?
Nathan Powell: I, yeah, wanted to get back to SaaS.
Nathan Powell: Because let's face it, SaaS is sweet. It's hard, You know, if you heard in the previous episode, it is hard because if you get to that plateau and you can't get past it, then what'd you do? But at the same time, there is just something about SaaS because once you get it working, once it's going you have a solid business for potentially many years. So I, I knew that I wanted to back to that.
brian_casel: It's really cool because it's like it's so hard to both start and get early customers and to grow and sustain. And it's [00:04:00] like, and it's almost like why do we kill ourselves on trying to build a SaaS, it's so damn hard. But it is also like so great. and it's valuable. Uh, You know, and it, if it, works right? And it's, and it's actually fun.
I find that the challenges really fun to work on, you know?
Nathan Powell: Well, and I think especially at the beginning, because those challenges are incredibly fun because you're, you're still hugely passionate the idea and about you know, the, the potential solution that you're bringing to your customers. So...
Nathan Powell: I definitely did wanna back to SaaS but for some reason it just seemed far off. I thought it's okay. I've still got time. So what I'll do is I'll try and get some kind of design service based businesses you know. And I did actually in the last couple of years, and I think that was pretty much when I resurfaced. I tried to build service businesses around design. And you probably remember, like three years ago, there was like an explosion of, all you can eat, design services.
And so I thought, well, I'll niche down on one of those, you know? Um, so [00:05:00] I, I, I did try and niche down on, uh, and working, with businesses that were trying to do good things in the world. You know, people who trying to do working with environment and things like that. I just couldn't get any of them to kick off. I tried one with YouTube. I tried one with you know, video editing. I tried one with design and I just came to the conclusion suck at service products, . So I don't know what about those products, you know, it doesn't work for me. But something about me doesn't allow me to work within the confines of the, the service.
So I just realized I've gotta get back to SaaS, I've gotta get back to product, you know. I think I'm pretty good at it. You know, even when I haven't been working on my own products, I've been working UX on client SaaS. So I thought I've gotta get back to it and um, thankfully I am nearly there.
brian_casel: Yeah. Alright, so let's talk about that. I mean... Okay, so you, you are being kind of public about Feature Flux, right? Like we, we could talk about that, right?
Nathan Powell: Yeah. I've jumped on the build in public hashtag.
brian_casel: I wanna dig into this [00:06:00] idea, FeatureFlux.com, that you're just getting off the ground. But before we even into that like, were there other SaaS ideas that you started to explore? Like, take us through like the exploration process for you.
Nathan Powell: This is essentially, obviously how it stands now has already changed considerably over the la over the final months, but it funnily enough, it only really came from one prior idea you know, instead of going through a hundred ideas, it was...
Nathan Powell: I, so I, I work exclusively in UX design now. I haven't touched UI for, for years, thankfully uh, I realized my strong side was UX and that's where I'm happiest. So I was talking to a, a product manager friend. Uh, And I'm a big fan of Balsamiq just because so quick and so simple and you're never gonna mistake it for anything else other than what it is. It's a wire frame. That's it.
brian_casel: Yeah. It's such a great product over the years and it's, great because of its uh, constraints, you know?
Nathan Powell: I think I'm [00:07:00] probably faster in Balsamiq than I am in pen and paper. So as soon as I want to get anything down, I go straight into Balsamiq and I think, I don't know, I'm sure pedi would disagree with me because I don't have no idea what their numbers are. get the impression that there's not that much love anymore in, in the younger, shall I say UX designers, I feel they all tend to drift towards Figma and like nothing exciting has happened there recently, or, you know, these are the huge products, you know, maybe the XD and stuff. But I, Yeah, I love it. is, it's my go-to tool. But as you said, those limitations, they do frustrate me every now and again because I work in it quite a lot. In fact, I'm probably in Balsamiq more than I'm in Figma.
So limitations would begin to frustrate me. And I was talking to this product manager and I said, Well, about what something that was similar, but there was like had these things that annoy me, you. And he was like, Well that sounds, sounds kind of nuts to me. You know, building wire framing software. And he just got talking about part of the process cuz obviously I work with different areas of product [00:08:00] teams now being, being exclusively UX. And one thing that came up was there seems to be a gap. Something that exists for developers, doesn't seem to exist for designers, and that's kind of version control and gathering feedback both internally and from non-technical people outside of the product team,
brian_casel: It's so true, version control... I mean, version control in dev for me is Git and GitHub.
Nathan Powell: And everyone accepts that.
brian_casel: Yeah we have we have branches. We can merge back in. I can collaborate with all my developers. But version control in my, all of my design work is a thousand folders one named like v1, then v2, then V2 final, then V2 final for real this time. And then like v2. Oh my God. it's It's, it's a total mess.
Nathan Powell: It's crazy. And the strange thing is, and the thing that, you know, I started digging into this and the thing that scared me most about this space was that this doesn't exist. This product, there's nothing that exists that takes care of this specific product, this [00:09:00] specific problem.
There are pieces of software that skate around the edges, like something like Zeplin, for example, could be taken from a developer's perspective, which is bringing design files from Figma and then letting developers take all their measurements and stuff and blah, blah, blah. But there's nothing, again from the design, the you know, marketing and sales teams.
In all the research I've done, and believe me, I've done considerable amounts of research the last few months. Sales and marketing teams don't wanna be digging into Figma presentations and giving comments. They're not happy in that technical space. If it's an internal thing, you know where it is just the product team, then Figma is great. Like, let's share and let's talk and let's discuss. But there are other aspects of the eternal question is in the product team, so, so is this the final? So is, so is this where we are now? Is this the one we're working off? As you know it, like in Figma, there's no, there's no way to actually lock something off. I mean, you okay. You can lock a, you [00:10:00] know, you can lock a, a set of screens or something, but there's no... There's nothing that exists to say within the entire product team, not just the designers files, Okay team, this is where we are. This is the final now. Why doesn't this exist? I don't know.
brian_casel: Yeah I mean, I'm just personally starting to see the use cases for what you're building with Feature Flux. Because like all of my design work has been completely solo, right? Like, even though I have a team of developers and marketing people, like most of that stuff we're already in the browser when we're collaborating in, in code.
So any kind of design work that I ever do is, is mostly just for myself. Just to give myself either a rough wire frame, a rough creative direction on, on how this interface is gonna come together. And then pretty quickly, I'll, I'll jump into code and start designing in the browser. And so like, use of Figma and Balsamiq is like really, really basic.
Just like I, it doesn't have to be pretty, cuz I'm not gonna show it to anyone except for myself. It's just for my, you know, so [00:11:00] I don't, I don't do the fancy like components and like interactive mockups or anything like that. Like, I just don't need to... It's faster for me go straight into code, right.
But I, I start to see some of the other use cases, like for myself right now, I'm actually designing a, a bunch of new features in ZipMessage that normally at this point, I would, would already move into code and, and hashing out issues with the, the developers. But now I have a couple of really big new features that I need to show to our customer base, like, like select customers to get their feedback on it before we start building.
Nathan Powell: Mm-hmm.
brian_casel: And so for that, I actually am more detailed mockups in Figma than I normally would. Just for the fact that they need to be presentable so that I could explain what we're gonna be building and, and like that, that's one. And then I could see like other teams you know, have other stakeholders. Like showing design files, not just to the developers, but to, like you said, like the marketing and sales people,[00:12:00] potential prospects and things like that. And then I was talking to my friend Rich Staats who runs Secret Stache, which is a development agency. They are a WordPress development shop and they work with design agencies.
Nathan Powell: That's where the secret sauce is gonna be is with development agencies and design agencies.
brian_casel: Yeah, he was totally telling me like design agencies deal with clients. Like they have to create super slick mockups and presentations before it goes into development. Like less, to hand off to developers more because they need to present it to the client and say like, This is what we're gonna build. Are we on the same page, Right?
Nathan Powell: Yeah, and there are workarounds obviously, because product teams are doing workarounds now, every single one of them. But like, but even software that tries to tackle the problem, like sort of Envision and Mirror and all that stuff. They've all become whiteboard software. So anything you input into the system is you just dump a bunch of screens onto one large whiteboard and then you, you go from there. But as you know, if [00:13:00] you design software screen by screen, like an interaction takes place screen by screen which is why I'm going in that direction. You know, I don't wanna see a white ball with th... I don't wanna see Figma, you know, I don't wanna see a white ball with 30 screens. I wanna see screen by screen.
brian_casel: It almost like shouldn't be completely interactive where anyone can dive in and slide the canvas around. It's, it's like, yeah, screen by screen, because to me it's also about like screen by screen to guide my verbal presentation. Like, first, let me show you this, and here's what we're looking at. Okay? Now I showed you that. Now let's move on to screen number two.
Nathan Powell: Completely.
brian_casel: Here are the key points to know about screen number two. Let's get your feedback. Now we move on. Like, for the other person, whether it's a client or a stakeholder or a customer you're trying to get feedback from. It's not a functional app yet. You're not asking them to use it. You just want them to look at it and tell me what you think, right? .
Nathan Powell: Yeah. And I, and totally. And then being able to create [00:14:00] the versions based off of that, and then close that design and say, Yep, the feedback we got, that's it. That's done, that's dusted. And then that's kept as a record then, you know. Because you can, you. You working with version, you can say, Okay, that's the final version. Or you can go back to previous versions to say, why did we make that decision? Documentation in product teams is huge, you know. And, and it's a pain in the ass for everyone. Like I said, it had worried me that nothing like this exists, but I'm getting more and more feedback. So I have a prototype out now that I'm testing with product managers and the feedback I'm getting is great.
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Okay, back to the show.
brian_casel: Yeah I wanted to ask you about that. So what are your next steps? So like, we have this idea you see there's sort of like an opportunity in the market, [00:16:00] at least you think there is. So where do you go from there? Like what kind of research and prototyping and all that?
Nathan Powell: I've been talking to as many product managers as I can the last few months and the last week or so, and then this coming week as well. Hopefully this will be the final week where I'm doing customer development, at least for this initial stage. I'll be testing this prototype that I put together based off of all the feedback...
brian_casel: You know like a lot of people don't do this really well so like how did you go about finding product managers and how did you reach out to them and...
Nathan Powell: I'm, far more cautious than ever was with Nusii. I said, I think in the previous episode, everyone I interviewed told me they would never use Nusii and I did it anyway. It is not the case with this, with Feature Flux. I have been looking at this for months, but the way I, the way I found product managers initially, the few I knew I reached out to personally, but then outside of that I went into Facebook groups of product managers and I was, I started placing polls because it was the lowest point of resistance. You know, I didn't have to introduce myself or anything. I didn't have to, you know, again, again, the [00:17:00] shyness or whatever. So I just created polls and I was asking if product managers had a design background or not, that was one poll, I think, that got over 110 responses.
brian_casel: That's a really interesting idea, I never thought of that.
Nathan Powell: Yeah. Well then you see all the people who have responded because you created the poll. So then I went and contacted all of those people, say, I say, Hey, I see you don't have a design background, blah, blah, blah. I would do that again on LinkedIn. And then of course LinkedIn is easier in that response, in that re respect because then you can then reach out to everyone they know.
brian_casel: And then just the fact that there are Facebook groups where product managers -
Nathan Powell: Yeah.
brian_casel: - hang out and same thing on LinkedIn, like, like that's a good sign in itself like there are these places.
Nathan Powell: They are huge communities, product managers, and they're very vocal. They're very passionate. They are...
brian_casel: Easy to reach them.
Nathan Powell: They're easy to reach.
Nathan Powell: So you only have to go into LinkedIn or Facebook, and they're passionate. They really are. In fact, I think it's probably one of the most passionate group of, professionals that I've found even more so than [00:18:00] designers. So, so that was how I initially got in touch and just started reaching out to people and said, You know, I'm, I'm thinking that something might be a little bit broken in the, in the product design process and...
brian_casel: And then you started talking to them like you had some calls?
Nathan Powell: Yeah, well I initially just asked questions via text.
Nathan Powell: The whole thing about not wanting to annoy people, not wanting to bother. And the more I spoke to a few people, the more I saw there was a bit more of a, a sort of, you know, we've got on and stuff. So I just said to people, you know, would you be up to jumping on a call? And, that was it. And from there I was able to get all the questions outta the way. I mean, a big help, a huge help was deploy Empathy by Michele.
brian_casel: Uh, Michele Hansen. Yep.
Nathan Powell: That was a huge help for me because I think I would've missed a lot of things. In fact I read it quite late in the process. And I'm glad I did because essentially... I have, Oh, if you're watching the video, you can see this. But I have my questions listed out for the interviews, and they all come directly Michele.
brian_casel: So anyway, like where are you now with like Feature Flux? [00:19:00] Like, you said that you're doing a prototype, like are you working with a developer or what, What does that look like?
Nathan Powell: No, the prototype is literally just a clickable prototype at the moment. And now I think literally just this week I've decided that, yeah, I'm gonna, I want this to go ahead and I wanna try and get something coded up that, I can get in front of people and, and see if there is really interest you know. You'll, you'll never really, really know until you have that piece of code out there.
brian_casel: That's so true. You know, I, I I've done a ton of like, pre-selling and interviews and stuff, but nothing beats actually getting the product in front of 'em.
Nathan Powell: Yeah, completely. And that's what's been so scary about the whole thing, cuz I know I have to go to this final stage to..
brian_casel: Yeah, totally.
Nathan Powell: To see whether it's all gonna be worth it.
brian_casel: Well, we will get everything, uh, linked up in the show notes. Nathan, this was awesome connecting with you again. We'll have to get you back on here to give us the update, but I gotta run.
Nathan Powell: All right. Definitely, man. Cheers, man.
brian_casel: All right.
Nathan Powell: Speak soon.
brian_casel: Well, that wraps up today's Open [00:20:00] Thread. Hey, tell me what you think. I'm on Twitter @casjam, and right after that, head over to iTunes and give this show a five star review. Really helps it reach more folks like us. I appreciate it. Talk to you next week.