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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Turning an internal email tool into a +$8k/mo SaaS

Gaurav Sharma
Gaurav Sharma
June 18, 2020
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
Revenue of startups
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Turning an internal email tool into a +$8k/mo SaaS

Gaurav Sharma
Gaurav Sharma
June 18, 2020
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
Cause of failure of the startup

Gaurav is the founder of SaaS Labs, a 60-people company building SaaS businesses. One of their three products is Helpwise. It started as an internal email tool and, with a small budget of $20k, has grown to become a separated SaaS making almost $100k/year.



Hi Gaurav! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

Hey, I’m 31 years old & currently based out of New Delhi, India. I’m a chemical engineer by education, the only job that I ever took (& left after 3 months) was into investment banking.

But, I always loved programming and built my first tech business when I was around 16 yrs old. In the last 10 years, I have built 4 businesses, of which 2 got acquired (last one by New York Times), 1 failed and 1 is currently running & growing.

Currently, I’m running a digital products company called SaaS Labs. We’re a 60 people team working remotely across India, Philippines, and the US. Bootstrapped & profitable, we were the 5th Fastest Growing Company in Deloitte India Tech Fast50 & 54th fastest growing in APAC last year. 

Helpwise's team

We have 3 products - 1) JustCall - a cloud phone system for sales, support and remote teams 2) CallRoot - inbound call tracking for marketers 3) Helpwise (our latest product) - a shared inbox for email, SMS, and WhatsApp. 

Helpwise's dashboard

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

When I started my current company SaaS Labs, the thesis of the business was (& still remains) that we are big-time bullish on 3 major themes: 

  1. Cloud Adoption: More & more businesses around the world will adopt cloud for running their business operations
  2. Remote work: A good chunk of the workforce will work remotely. Not necessarily work from home but away from HQ or the work desk for sure.  
  3. Automation: Every business will adopt some kind of automation to improve profitability and compete well with other businesses. 

In late 2017, as the JustCall (a cloud phone system; https://justcall.io) team started to grow, we felt a need for shared inbox software to handle our help@, sales@, etc email addresses. For the next 12-15 months, we tried all the available products in the market. But, all these products were either too expensive or too complex. So, we decided to build our own shared inbox for our own team, for our own use only. Our managers helped us build analytics on top of it to track KPIs. 

During a team offsite, when we were planning our annual revenue growth and goals, someone suggested launching our in-house team email software as a product in the market. This product satisfies all the points which are part of our thesis so we decided to go ahead and launch this as Helpwise.

Basically, this product came out of our own necessity. On 2nd Dec 2019, we launched Helpwise on Product Hunt & got featured. The current product is 5-10x better & powerful than the first version. 

How did you build Helpwise?

We run an interesting Seed Funding program in our company. It is something like Y Combinator. When we decide to build a new product or give a shot to an idea, we give a $20,000 budget and 3 months to a team of 3-4 people to build and launch the product. 

This budget can be spent on anything - hiring & team building, marketing, technology, consulting fees. 

So, Helpwise got $20,000, 2 young engineers (Vibhor & Rishabh), 1 Engineering Manager (Prabhat), and 3 months’ time. By August, our MVP was ready and we started inviting beta users (mostly our customers of our other products and our friends at other startups). 

Deciding how to price your product is one of the most important early decisions that you have to take. And, interestingly, the least amount of time is given to that. Learning from this mistake from my previous experience, we spent a good amount of time discussing and testing different pricing models and plans. 

Finally, two important factors influenced our decision:

  1. The reason why we built an internal use email software - we found other products super expensive, mainly because of per seat per month pricing for small businesses growing from 5 to 20 to 50. Cost shoots up quite significantly. 
  2. How one of the most-used software (Basecamp) in our company is priced?

So, our final pricing plans came out to be:

  1. Free Plan for up to 5 team members (aka small business) 
  2. Pro Plan for $99/month for unlimited team members & 5 shared inboxes I know that most of the SaaS practitioners consider Fixed Price for Unlimited Seats as a sin but we really want to give this a try. It has worked for Basecamp, so hopefully, it will work for us as well :) 

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

At SaaS Labs, as we build and launch so many products on a regular basis, we have a playbook for our product launches. I’m going to share that here with everyone. 

  1. Product Hunt Launch: If you launch your product at the right time (around 12-1230am PST), with great images and an engaging first comment - there are high chances of getting featured on the first page, obviously if the product is good. This will generate 1000s of visits. Now, it’s on you how you make most of it.
  2. SEO: We start working on important keywords almost 2 months before the launch. We do a lot of offsite and onsite SEO to make it to the first 3 results for important terms.
  3. Cold outreach to Linkedin contacts, customers of other products.
  4. Paid Ads: It is good to have a working paid channel that is at least generating clicks with high CTR. This means that there is a legit demand for the product and you can scale.
  5. Integrations with other tools and getting listed on market places. 
Helpwise support
Integration with Shopify

All in all, we signed up over 1700-2000 folks in a short time. And, 55 converted to a paid subscription within weeks of launch.

SEO & Integrations worked the best. Paid ds did a good job & Product Hunt didn’t get us many customers but definitely helped us pick the momentum. 

We’re growing organically at a healthy rate month on month.

What are your goals for the future?

For SaaS Labs, we are aiming for $10 million annual recurring revenue by the end of 2021.  In Helpwise, we were on the path to reach $1 million ARR by November this year but we are now expecting to reach that figure by mid-next year. 

We are currently 60+ team members (more than doubled since Jan 2020). And, we are profitable. 

Coming to the Helpwise product, we are really excited about our upcoming feature Chat Platform. Our customers will be able to add a chat widget on their sites. This chat widget will not only work as a normal customer chat feature but it will also allow us to integrate with other customer support chat, conversational marketing and chatbot products. So, from a single screen, our customers will be able to manage email, SMS, Whatsapp, and chat (coming via our own chat widget or Intercom/Drift, etc).

What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?

Shared inbox is critical software for any business as your business runs on it. So, the biggest challenge for us was to provide 24 hr support to our customers. Also, given our team’s location (India), the time zone difference made things even more challenging. 

So, to overcome this, we firstly worked in shifts ourselves. And, then use Upwork to hire a support agent in PST timezone.  

Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?

Timezone difference b/w our key market and our team’s location is definitely a big disadvantage. 

But, the bigger challenge is that the shared inbox market is still pretty small in comparison to some of the other SaaS domains like CRM, cloud telephony, digital signature, etc. 

I’m not saying that the market is tiny but it’s not big enough to create enough organic growth to sustain & grow. So, it will require a lot of effort and capital to create a mini-brand and reach the first million. Please note that I’m talking about market size in relative terms (i.e. in relation to markets our other products are in). 

I feel that the worst mistakes that we have made as a team are: 

  1. Delaying our launch in order to build more & more features before launch. 
  2. Targeting broad & multiple use cases. In the last few months, we have got some clarity on best-suited use cases for our product but we have definitely lost some time and money. 

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

I’ll definitely launch the product a bit earlier. Also, having marketing expertise early on is something we are going to seriously consider for any future new product. We did well to spread the word and get early customers but that was not predictable at all. 

What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

Three books that I highly recommend: 

  1. Built To Sell”, by John Warrillow: Easy read, motivating, and good to get started with delegating work & helping you understand why working on the business is more important than working in the business.
  2. From Impossible To Inevitable”, by Aaron Ross & Jason Lemkin: Once you have the product, small but motivated team and processes, this book helps with accelerating everything.
  3. Built To Last”, by Jim Collins: As your business starts to grow, this book will work as a great CEO coach.

3 podcasts/Youtube channels:

  1. Dan Martell
  2. Nathan Latka
  3. Almost every video/podcast by Jason Lemkin & David Sacks.

Long-form reads/Essays: 

  1. Paul Graham essays
  2. Jeff Bezos’s annual letters

Where can we go to learn more?

You can follow me on Twitter here. To learn more about Helpwise, visit us here


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