“Sharing Our Experiences, Wins, and Lessons is Also Humbling. It Keeps Us Honest,” and Other Notes on Building a Customer-First, Bootstrapped Business with Canny’s Co-Founder, Sarah Hum


In the following (Relay Rapid Fire) exchange, Canny’s co-founder and CEO, Sarah Hum (@sarah), offers instructive snapshots of the core elements that inform their deliberate, self-funded journey.

Documenting Canny’s path in public
Why they didn’t have to revisit PMF
Building in a tough market
Being self-funded
Making bets as a lean team
Canny’s freemium experiment
What they’ve gotten right from the start
How they look at competition and integrations


Documenting Canny’s path in public

In the beginning, sharing our journey was just an easy way to create content. Andrew and I aren’t SEO experts, so we wrote about what we knew. Now, it’s more about transparency and helping others on a similar path.

Knowing that we’re helping fellow founders and indie hackers makes us feel good. Startups are not easy, so I hope that sharing our experiences saves some people time or gives them encouragement/clarity. We want to share insights that we craved when we first started.

Sharing our experiences, wins, and lessons is also humbling. It keeps us honest, shows how far we’ve come, and motivates us to keep going.

That said, as founders, we’ve struggled to allocate time to writing more recently. We’re trying to be better (read: feel more comfortable) at delegation. We need to create space so we can spend time reflecting.

Hopefully you’ll hear more from us soon!

Why they didn’t have to revisit PMF

I think feedback is a very universally-understood concept so we only needed to sell people on our approach to feedback.

Where we did question more was where we could take the product. Should we continue going deeper into product feedback? Should we expand more horizontally into product management?

I like Canny being really good at solving a specific problem. However, teams (especially larger ones) prefer a single solution that does a wide range of things. We have since gone a bit in both directions.

I’m hoping that we can do enough to validate the direction without fully committing.

It simplifies things if you can zero in on the kinds of customers you want to focus on.

We use Canny ourselves to segment our users and understand what features matter to what group of people. We’re big on prioritization, and we look at multiple factors including the number of votes on a feature request, associated MRR, potential revenue, and weigh in where we want to go as a company.

The goal is to understand the needs of our target customers to drive the most impact for Canny. Of course, we have urgent requests from key customers, and we need to consider those as well. We typically prioritize those things when the requests are good for our other customers.

A big shift for us is moving upmarket. We’re still supporting and elevating entrepreneurs, indie hackers, and startups. We offer a generous free plan specifically for them! However, we’re also improving Canny to serve larger product teams and companies.

It’s tricky, but we’re trying to evolve Canny to serve more use cases while serving our existing loyal customers the best we can. Our goal is to elevate as many product leaders as possible.

This includes those at early-stage startups who might not have the budget for a dedicated feedback tool. Feedback may also not be a huge problem yet when you don’t have too many customers. We wanted to give teams a no-brainer plan they can get started with and grow alongside them.

We also believe in product-led growth.

Instead of trying to tell people the value of Canny, they can experience it first-hand.

Building in a tough market

Growth used to come easy, our numbers would just go up and to the right without overwhelming effort. Things are different now. Budgets are smaller and people are tighter with their spend.

They think more critically about whether software is a must-have.

To think about things positively: if we can build a strong business in this environment, we’ll thrive when the market recovers.

Being self-funded

Andrew and I luckily had a decent amount of savings to live off of while we started Canny. We also moved to more affordable cities to make our savings go further. That said, needing to make money is the best forcing function.

We were able to support our personal livelihood while proving that Canny solved a problem for our customers. We didn’t start hiring until we could afford it so we’ve never felt too squeezed in terms of the runway.

Making bets as a lean team

Our team is still small enough that we’re not making a ton of big bets at once. It’ll usually be leadership that considers bigger direction changes during planning. If we feel strongly about something, we’ll just rally the team, get their thoughts and push forward.

We don’t need approval or anything so we’ll just go and execute. It’s less about figuring out where to allocate capital and more about prioritizing the resources we have.

Still lean but it’s wild to me that our team is 16 people now!

We’re still hiring too!

We’ll always be a product-focused team with over half of us being product people.

There are always more features to build and more value to be provided. Our engineers are still responsible for features from start to finish. New features are always the most tempting, but we need to be mindful of maintaining existing features as well.

The rest of our team is focused on go-to-market. It doesn’t matter how good our product is if nobody uses it! Marketing is our next largest function given that we’ve built Canny to be largely self-serve. Bigger customers are supported with sales and success to provide that white-glove experience.

Between both product and go-to-market, our team is built with people that can execute. Even managers are still expected to have tangible deliverables. No red tape. We can make mistakes and fail but we need to try and put stuff out there.

Canny’s freemium experiment

After we introduced our free plan, we got more people using Canny than ever before.

We expected that getting people engaged with the product would lead to more paying accounts. That’s largely proven true. We see highly engaged accounts upgrading, and it’s unlikely they’ll churn. We focus a lot on how to measure and drive engagement.

For engagement, the early days of when a potential customer signs up is the most crucial. They are the most motivated at that moment to get a solution set up. We put a lot of work into our onboarding to increase the likelihood of them getting to “engaged”.

That definition will change depending on the product but there are signals that we’ve determined by looking at our own data to decide when an account is “engaged”. From there, we do everything we can to help our customers reach those goals.

We also question how much revenue we’re potentially leaving on the table due to making the free plan too generous. Pricing is something we’re always looking to improve.

What they’ve gotten right from the start

Unintentionally plugging Canny again — listening to customers from day one.

We fortunately dogfood our own tool and use it to keep track of requests and inform what we build. Months later when we have the bandwidth to prioritize something, it’s very helpful to be able to dig into who wants it and their specific use cases.

How they look at competition and integrations

When it comes to competition, I’d say we keep a pulse on what’s going on, but we don’t blindly follow what they’re doing. We look to our user’s needs to build the product.

In general, I think getting distracted by competition is the most dangerous thing we could do. At that point, strategy, vision, and innovation go out the window.

The one thing I think is good to compare against competition is product quality. This is hard to measure but, as product people, we have a good sense of what feels like a good product. Regardless of features, our product must be easy and intuitive to use.

Everyone on the product team is expected to hold ourselves to a high quality bar. We’re hoping to do more quality assurance to make sure we are constantly hitting that bar.

And integrations are very important for our customers because feedback comes in via multiple channels. When we integrate with more tools, we can make sure our customers have a holistic view of their feedback.

From there, our other integrations help with making Canny a seamless part of their workflows. Integrating with top tools also gives Canny exposure to more people by simply being listed in app stores.


Related reading from the Relay archives:

Missive’s co-founder, Phillipe-Antoine Lehoux, on how early adopters don’t have to be best-fit users
Boomerang’s co-founder, Aye Moah, on being a small, elite team
Userflow’s co-founder, Esben Friis-Jensen, on bootstrapping after years on the VC-backed path

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