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To build a durable SaaS business, rethink your product roadmap

This was originally published in DevOps.

During a tech downturn, with enterprises cutting their subscription software budgets and VC funding drying up, SaaS businesses are increasingly shifting their strategic focus from growth to resilience.

The standard startup playbook—hunker down, cut burn rate and hope the market improves before you run out of runway—isn’t the right path forward for SaaS businesses. Instead, the key to durability is to lean into efficient growth. By revamping their product strategy, companies can lower the cost of customer acquisition with low-touch onboarding strategies and also increase revenue retention with stickier products, helping to unlock new ways to scale up and sustainably grow revenues.

Implementing this approach requires a fresh approach to your product roadmap—because when you scale through retention and expansion, the primary goal is maximizing utility for existing customers so they’ll increase usage and be willing to spend more over time. That means prioritizing core features and usability and not tacking on new features in a bid to draw in new customers with adjacent use cases.

Getting that right, in turn, requires SaaS leaders to leverage the product itself as a key to understanding which features need attention, as well as a messaging channel and conduit for two-way communication with end users so you can influence user behavior and collect user feedback. Here are four steps that product managers can take to drive durable, resilient growth for their companies:

Get serious about analytics

Every business wants to use data to drive better decision-making—but many organizations fail to realize that their own product is their most potent source of data. Unlike web analytics which show only the behavior of random web users, product data has the power to help you understand the user journey, what they’re finding useful, what they’re struggling with—and how you can create value to keep them coming back for more.

That makes product analytics—data showing how your product is being used, along with user surveys, messaging and other more qualitative measures—a powerful resource as you seek to anchor your development roadmap in the things your customers actually need. Armed with user feedback, it’s possible to learn how your customers feel, understand what’s missing—and invest in improvements that align with your users’ evolving needs.

Stay focused on stickiness

Your analytics dashboard should have a strong focus on your stickiest features—the ones that keep users coming back for more. Those will include your product’s key value drivers during the early evaluation stage when you’re looking to hook new customers and turn their curiosity into a compelling use case for your product. But they will also include outcome-related features that enable established customers to measure and increase ROI as they scale up. Finally, they will include features that directly drive organic expansion, such as collaboration functionality that drives users to invite colleagues to use your product.

Product managers (and their bosses) naturally get excited about new features—but by taking a data-driven look at stickiness across the whole customer life cycle, it becomes easier to identify opportunities to innovate around your core functionality and make it more integrated, scalable, and productive. Customers won’t renew or expand their contracts because you rolled out a shiny new feature—but they will keep renewing if your team keeps investing in making their outcome-driven features the best they can possibly be so they can be successful at their job.

Make space for quick wins to drive advocacy

If you view your roadmap as a waitlist for dev resources, it’s tempting to simply add newly identified usability bugs or hiccups to the bottom of the list, and circle back to them months later once your team is done working on building out new features. But in the end-user era, users control the renewal decision, so customer satisfaction isn’t a nice-to-have—it’s something you have to make time for to build and grow a durable business. That means pre-allocating time and resources for quick fixes and small enhancements that reduce friction, eliminate pain points with core features and drive stickiness for existing users.

As you track user experience across your stickiest features, you’ll find errors and pain points that need to be remedied promptly to keep your users happy. These are hard to plan for because they’ll emerge on a daily basis based on usage data and user feedback—so the key is to proactively assign resources to address these unplanned issues and turn them into quick wins, enabling you to iterate quickly rather than risking user frustration by adding core-feature fixes to your standard product roadmap.

Influence user behavior

User enablement is sometimes underestimated by product teams, but the shocking truth is that most customers won’t carefully read through your release notes in search of new features. In fact, they may not even notice your newly released functionality—and those that do might still struggle to understand how that feature supports their core use cases or to intuit the best practices for using it effectively.

To increase visibility into new features, you need to leverage in-app messaging, enabling your core users to unlock new functionality in an optimal way so you can capitalize on your product investments. As part of every release process, invest in user enablement by creating effective in-app communication with links to articles and videos that can help users adopt features successfully.

Invest in revenue drivers

Of course, focusing on stickiness doesn’t mean slamming the brakes on all new features. The key is to use product data to ensure that innovations aren’t coming at the expense of core-feature usability. Before signing off on a new feature, make sure you have a hypothesis on how it will drive revenues—and remember: Innovative new capabilities might attract a subset of early adopters, but during a down economy your customers care more about must-have features than about nice-to-have add-ons.

Be sure to weigh a feature’s projected value—for your users and also in terms of revenues—against the cost of maintaining that feature over time. Every company has a finite amount of dev-hours to dedicate to perfecting its product, so even revenue-positive features can prove a drain on resources. Be realistic about what you can manage and don’t sacrifice long-term stickiness for short-term innovation.

Remember your North Star

To make the right decisions during tough times, every SaaS business needs to focus on its North Star. For product managers, that means taking the time to understand—in a granular, data-driven way—exactly what makes their SaaS product worth paying for. Real resilience comes from leaning into those things and scaling by optimizing the user experience to make the product as sticky as it can be.

Building durable and resilient SaaS businesses isn’t just about belt-tightening. It requires a commitment to scaling through the product and using it as a vehicle to drive retention and expansion by increasing value across your core features in ways that keep customers coming back for more. That, in turn, requires a fresh approach to your roadmap—because more than anything else, the way you understand and invest in your product will determine your company’s success or failure during the tough times that lie ahead.