This is the first post that will actually talk about a real SaaS-attempt. As some commenters have pointed out, previous posts were a bit more.. meta. That’s fine, we own that, we were just setting the scene a bit. Today we’ll be talking about GoDutch.cash, one of our projects.
What is GoDutch.cash?
Very simply, GoDutch.cash is a platform where users can enter expenses they’ve incurred in shared situations (unfortunately named “Trips”, we didn’t have the foresight of global pandemics and things unfolding.. it’d work for flatmates, split grocery bills, restaurant outings, holidays, etc.), and the tool tells you who owes whom how much.
The background story
We didn’t just sit down and start building GoDutch. It actually
started life as a humble Google Sheet. At some undefined point in the
past, we both used Android phones, so that worked well. However, in
about December 2018 i got an iPhone and wanted to keep it Google-free.
It turned out that Apple Numbers (their spreadsheet product) didn’t
work on Android, and i was being obstinate, not wanting Google on this
new phone. We might have briefly looked around at apps to solve the
issue, but we’re privacy nerds, not to mention extremely cheap, so we
ended up whacking something together for our own use. I think it was
something like a Thursday evening i sat down, before planning to leave
on a weekend away on Saturday morning. I mostly just used a whole lot
rails generate to get my way out of a sticky situation, chucked
HTTP Basic Auth in front of the app, and flung it on
Heroku’s free tier. Life was good, life was
Fast-forward a few months, and we were still using the app ourselves, made an actual login and authentication system with sharing of trips between users, occasionally polishing rough edges and improving the styling, to the point that we realised that with only a little more effort it could reasonably be used by anyone.
It mostly languished a bit, because we didn’t go on trips that often, and then the lockdown happened of course. A few weeks ago, a friend suggested we dust off GoDutch and perhaps try and actually monetise it. Why not, we thought.
Is there even a market?
There are quite a few competitors out there.1 We haven’t done a serious competitive analysis, but it’s apparent to me even more clearly than when we originally built GoDutch that competition would be.. stiff.
There are established competitors in your market. Do you give up?
I think the answer is a resounding no. Just think how many successful businesses not only thrive with under competition, but would have had to start up amid stiff competition. Almost every business out there, from car manufacturers, to banks, to corner grocery stores – at one point, each one of them didn’t yet exist, and at one point (or so i firmly believe) it all started with a few folks around a table (kitchen, board room, whatever) saying “let’s do this thing”.
Of course, some of them had backers with ultra deep pockets, or mountains of combined experience starting businesses. But not all of them. There would’ve been people with language disadvantages, a lack of connections in a new city or country, or perhaps just someone recently out of a job and in desperate need of something to feed their kids – all kinds of stress, we don’t know that. Something i like to remind myself of, is we often see other people being happy, or successful, or doing their thing, and we imagine they must be so confident, and so knowledgeable, while we’re just muddling along. I call that the front stage–back stage divide: you’re looking at everyone else putting their best foot forward, performing for all the other monkeys, while you’re aware of all the difficulty, uncertainty, that goes on in the kitchen, behind the scenes, to make progress. I might be wrong, but at least i’ll be optimistic.
This whole topic reminds me of an article i read,2 entitled something along the lines of “thinking like a marketer versus an engineer”. The gist of it was that the engineering mindset might say, “Oh no, that brilliant idea has already been done! Well, i’ll just have to invent some other, untested idea!” Whereas the marketer might say, “Aha, successful competition means that there’s a validated market there, i’ll build something similar with a small differentiation or edge.”
Our angle, our differentiator
We hoped that by charging a small amount ($15 per year) and making bold claims about privacy and lack of ads, we could convince folks to use our system. The design aimed to be fresh and cheeky, compared to other apps that looked plain janky or were very stuffy.
We have a free tier where you can create one “trip”, and a premium tier that allows you to create infinite trips and collaborate on them with other users of the platform. So, if a group of friends goes skiing together, only one of them needs to pay for GoDutch, the rest of them can get invited and add and modify expenses on trips shared by the premium user.
So.. was it a success?
Not really, no. I mean, we still use it to keep track of household expenses (we GoDutched the purchase of the exsaasperated.com domain name, in fact!), so it scratches our itch. But as of today we have one “premium” user, and that’s a guy i know with a tech blog who was kind enough to feature us.
I hazard a few guesses:
Very well-SEO’d competitors, that offer a free product that does pretty much all of what we do – no margins to eat.
Not many people actually sweat this stuff! They probably just take turns paying for lunches.
Ineffectual marketing campaign – we haven’t been able to get enough eyes on it, perhaps. But i think this point is probably less of an issue than the first two.
What we tried
We spent a small amount ($44.49) on ads. Specifically on Facebook and Reddit ads. We found that Facebook’s targeting was super broad and clunky, whereas Reddit allowed us to pick particular subreddits (such as personal finance-related) to narrow our audience. While almost nobody touched our ads on Facebook, we actually got a fair few clicks (in the hundreds) from Reddit. None of them even signed up for our permanent free tier though, which really surprised us. Probably we could try to optimise the landing page some more, but i actually think that a) people don’t really have this problem, and b) if they do, they’ll use Google Sheets or one of the many other apps that are free.
I think there are two lessons for us here:
Talk to users first, build an audience before building an app. In the time since we launched GoDutch we’ve been reading a lot more about small business, and that’s the advice we keep hearing.
Don’t over-build before releasing. Although, i don’t regret the effort we spent on GoDutch, and i don’t think it has been wasted. It’s working as a legitimate tool for our own use, and we’ve learned random technical things from putting together another Rails app from scratch.
Our name is better than the competition.
Time for our next project!
You’ve read this far. It has turned into a long post. I’m verbose, sorry. As a reward, here are some of the entirely silly ads i came up with sitting on the couch. We were purposely going for a mysterious / gonzo feel. I’m not sure they’re that great, but hey, we had fun.
Some of the ones we know of are Splitwise, Splid (what a name!), Kittysplit, Splittr, Billr (somebody buy these folks some vowels!), Settle Up, Tab (completely un-googleable), Divvy. Quite a few, for sure. We’re not in the USA so Venmo isn’t an option for us. It’s also owned by PayPal, so i’ll pass on that. ↩
Much to my chargrin i cannot find the article now. I’ll be sure to report back if i do. My poor summary will have to suffice. ↩