How did you get started?
I had implemented Salesforce and was running a team of 20 desk-based sales reps. They didn’t have a good process for how to route and assign leads that were coming into the Salesforce system. I went onto the AppExchange to find something that would plug that gap. There were a few options, and I picked one of those offerings. It was a Round Robin app that routed leads across the team, and it did the job.
About 18 months later, when I finished that role, I decided to step out of full-time work but needed something to do. I had just been messing around with Salesforce and hadn’t done any development for a while. I came across a few Salesforce SFDX articles and was interested in the idea of being able to work with just a laptop and an internet connection. By downloading Visual Studio Code and the SFDX toolset, I could use the Salesforce ecosystem to build an app and wrap it into a managed package for deployment onto Salesforce orgs.
I obviously needed an idea for my first app, so I thought about the Round Robin use case I had encountered in that previous company. The app I had installed kind of did the job, but I was pretty sure I could do something better. So, I built something that did that job and then started adding features to it. That’s how the whole Round Robin app came into being.
I originally started offering it as a free app to get feedback from people who were using it. It became pretty clear that it was highly in demand, and I could start charging for it. So, after about nine months, I began to do so.
What was your approach for building the first version?
I’ve always been heavily influenced by the lean startup approach, focusing on building a minimum viable product to validate the idea. I had an advantage since I already had a use case and knew there was a business need, but I still had to release something. As you build, it’s tempting to keep adding features because it’s relatively easy when creating a new application. The challenge is resisting that temptation and focusing on the minimum core features.
One piece of advice I got from a former CEO was to limit new features to those that would be applicable to the vast majority, around 80%, of your customer base. If a feature request will only serve one or two users, it’s better to avoid adding it. This strategy prevents the product from becoming cluttered with features that most users won’t use, which could deter potential customers.
From a sales perspective, a scaled-down product that meets users’ core needs is easier to sell and position in the marketplace. Now, the challenge I face is deciding whether to add features that may be useful for enterprise customers but not for smaller clients. It’s a conundrum because the AppExchange doesn’t make it easy to offer tiered products.
How do you decide which features to include in your App?
My understanding of customer needs is mostly subjective, based on what I’ve heard from them in the past. If certain requests keep coming up repeatedly, I typically prioritize those at the top of my list. If I hear a great idea for the first time, I might put it on the backlog but won’t usually add it immediately, especially if it’s from a big customer and I’ve never heard that request before. In this space, with this type of app, the requests tend to be quite similar. I rarely get requests that are so out-of-the-ordinary that I’ve never heard of them before, which makes prioritization a bit easier.
Was it difficult to start a business and create a company?
It was pretty straightforward. The attractive part was being able to install SFDX and start building without having to jump through many hoops to get accepted into the partner program. I got accepted and could start building the app and testing its functionality on scratch orgs without having to set up a company or do anything serious. This allowed me to go quite far in understanding the Salesforce ecosystem and deciding whether development was something I wanted to pursue. I could answer that question without incurring any costs or creating a company.
It was only when I decided to publish the app on the AppExchange and go through the security review that my account manager said I needed a legal entity. These days, you can just go online to company formation websites and set up a company for around 50 bucks, which is what I ended up doing. That was the only hoop to jump through. Then came the security review, which wasn’t too onerous.
As for insurance, I have some sort of professional liability coverage, but that wasn’t a requirement. Obviously, you also cover some legal aspects in your terms and conditions.
How did you attract customers?
My approach was to grow the business organically rather than having a sales and marketing team. I focused on targeting people who already knew they had a need for my solution. I didn’t have the resources to create a traditional marketing funnel to nurture leads over time. My strategy primarily involved Google ads and LinkedIn to target admins and business users who are actively looking for solutions like mine. I worked on optimizing my AppExchange listing to ensure that my app would appear in relevant searches. This strategy began when the app was free and has carried over since I transitioned it to a paid app.
The AppExchange may not be Google, but optimizing your listing is still crucial for visibility. I have years of experience in SEO, so I applied those principles to my AppExchange listing. One strategy I used was to include key search terms directly in the product name, like “Super Round Robin,” to enhance discoverability. This way, when potential customers search for relevant terms, my product has a better chance of showing up.
You can pay Salesforce to promote your app, but it’s an expensive option that I haven’t tried yet. In my space, there were already established competitors, but many of them had not fully optimized their AppExchange listings. This presented an opportunity for me to differentiate my product and gain traction by focusing on SEO and listing optimization.
The importance of reviews…
In my space, there are at least four or five apps that have been successfully selling on the AppExchange for five to ten years. When I came along, maybe two or three of them had double-digit reviews, but no more than that. So, when I first published the free app, I thought, “Great, I’ve published it. I’ve got the listing all sorted; it’s going to be great. I’m going to get lots of installs and find out I’ll get lots of feedback.”
To begin with, nothing happened. So, I sat back and thought, “Okay, what’s going on?” I went onto the AppExchange and did a search to see where I was coming up. But then, looking at the AppExchange, it was fairly obvious that if I were someone looking for that kind of product, I would see all of these other apps with five-star reviews, and mine had zero reviews and no stars. One of the first things I did was eventually to get a few clients to install it. Then, I convinced them or asked them, “If you like the product, can you write me a review on the AppExchange?”
As soon as I got a few five-star reviews against my listing, the number of installs, the leads, and installs just started ramping up. And it was still free at that point. And when I supported and got happy customers, I encouraged them to write a review. They put on more reviews, and it got to the point where I was getting lots of reviews every week. That made a huge difference to people engaging with the listing and then subsequently installing.
But the downside of that is that obviously the competitors who had been there, the incumbents, saw me catching up with them in terms of reviews. They clearly told their marketing teams, “Go and get reviews,” because then they started ramping up their reviews as well. Instead of me trying to carry on and overtake them in terms of reviews, I didn’t want to spook them too much, so I’ve kind of stayed a bit below them in terms of the number of reviews.
And once you get, I don’t know, maybe over 40 or 50 five-star reviews, it gets to the point where people look at that and think, “That’s a significant chunk of good reviews.” I think that’s when things start to take off in terms of engagement with your listing. That was really important—getting the reviews.
How was the transition from free to paid?
You have to go through and make the payment to Salesforce at the point when you switch to a paid app. I did it the wrong way around. I could have launched a free app initially and not paid the security review fee, which is something like two and a half thousand dollars. But my account manager convinced me to start as a paid app. Within the first few weeks of launching as a paid app with no reviews, it was a disaster. That’s when I switched it to a free app and started building up the reviews. Switching it back to a paid app later, I’d already paid Salesforce the security review fee.
It was just a matter of having that extra conversation when leads came in. The price includes a 30-day free trial. If you’re happy with it at the end, that’s when you put in your billing information. Most people found this to be a fairly good proposition, given that it’s completely free and risk-free for 30 days. They don’t have to put in any information until the end. There weren’t really any challenges with the transition to a paid model. The backend stuff works really well. The integration with Stripe also works really well, and you get good visibility into what your install base is doing.
I considered the original customers early adopters who provided valuable feedback. As a way of saying thank you, I left them on the free plan. About a year or two ago, I created another package, a standalone free app, and I’ve been in the process of transitioning those early adopters to that free app.
More recently, I’ve stopped advertising the free app on the AppExchange because I found that users rarely converted or upgraded to the paid version. While they were installing and using the free app’s functionalities, very few actually upgraded. At the same time, because they were small organizations without dedicated system administrators, they required more support than my paid customers.
What does a typical day for you look like?
Many of my customers are in the US, with a few located in other parts of the world. This works well for me because it allows for more relaxed mornings, followed by busier afternoons. If I have ongoing development work, I might dedicate a couple of hours a day to that. While I can’t control when I need to provide customer support, I address emails and online chats as they come in. From my perspective, the app is fairly self-contained and doesn’t require much support, which enables me to continue scaling the business without needing additional personnel.
Most of the support requests come through email, and I respond to those throughout the day. I also use an online chat platform, and when messages come in, they alert my phone. I deal with these as they come through. At this point, I don’t see the need to build out a team, but it’s something I’m considering for the future as the business continues to grow.
The support requirements for my app and customer type are low enough that I can scale beyond that figure without needing to hire additional support. Its important to consider that different types of apps require varying levels of support. For example, let’s say it’s an SMS messaging app; many customers have had issues with such apps. They go through app after app trying to find one that actually works for them and end up requiring a lot of support. So, some apps and areas require more support than others.
What skills and knowledge does someone need to be successful?
If someone is thinking about starting a business, the skills or knowledge they’ll need would depend on their background. For those with development skills, Salesforce offers excellent resources through Trailhead for learning SFDX and Apex programming. The transition is relatively smooth for those already familiar with languages like Java or C#.
If you’re a developer, you can quickly get up to speed on Apex and SFDX management through Trailhead. There are also other resources for broadening these skills, and perhaps even earning certifications. Focus on Force, for example, provides numerous tools and materials to help with certification.
Beyond technical skills, having a basic understanding of marketing is crucial. Conveying your message and value proposition effectively. This becomes especially important when crafting your listing on platforms like the AppExchange.
I wouldn’t just call it marketing; it’s really about passion—making people understand what you’re offering is the main goal.
For everything else, you can learn from or seek advice within the community, such as forums and collaboration areas on Salesforce partner websites. There are people offering advice on a daily basis about topics like transitioning from free to paid models, offering discounts, and optimizing your listing on the AppExchange. It’s a supportive community when it comes to learning and education.
How can someone get started?
Just dive in because the barrier to entry is really low. Becoming an ISV partner is straightforward; you don’t need to have a company for that. Installing Visual Studio Code and SFDX on your machine is also simple. Creating your first package is fairly easy to do. So, if you haven’t started yet, I would recommend taking that first step. Flesh out your idea in your spare time to get a sense of what it entails.
Once you’ve built a prototype, you’ve probably overcome the most challenging part of getting started. Then it’s a matter of validation. For that, I think it’s essential to just dive in and experiment with the tools to see what’s possible.
How can a full time income be replaced with an ISV business income?
You’re not going to have income right away. It would be a risk to quit your day job before you’ve proven or validated the app you’ve built. That said, if you can quickly validate that there’s demand and show that people are willing to pay for it, and come up with a scalable way of generating leads, then within six to 12 months you could be earning enough to either replace your income or substantially contribute to it. But that completely depends on the kind of app you’ve built. If your app serves a core business need, then your addressable market is huge. But if it’s something quite niche, you’re going to have a harder time getting a volume of leads that will generate income. One way to supplement your income is to offer custom development services to your existing customer base.
If you have a happy customer using your app, you can discuss whether they need any additional custom Salesforce development. This could include building out flows, writing triggers, or handling cleanup tasks. You can work as a freelance developer while building out the app, supplementing your income as you grow your business.
Are you enjoying your business?
I am enjoying what I’m doing at the moment. It’s quite satisfying to build something yourself, getting it out to the market, satisfying a core business need and then receive feedback that it’s providing good value for the money. It’s fulfilling to have a sense of purpose and also to have autonomy, so I can take it in any direction I like.