I officially sold Open Innovation Leads to a new owner last week. Here’s the story of the project, including how I built, grew, and sold it, as well as what’s next.
I started the free Open Innovation Leads newsletter in September 2020. For those who aren’t familiar, open innovation is a tactic used by large companies to put their technical and business needs out in public so that startups, researchers, and creators can bring them solutions. In exchange, the solution providers are usually paid a cash prize and are put on a fast track to gain an enterprise customer. Having been in the innovation space for many years, I was seeing a lot of these opportunities, either from corporate innovators sending me their needs directly or just from seeing what was posted in the ecosystem.
The problem is startups aren’t actively looking for these opportunities and aren’t following the channels where the opportunities are posted. After sending open innovation opportunities to startups in an ad hoc manner for years, several people suggested I start a newsletter so anyone could get access and learn about what was out there. Things going on in my personal life at this point in time were also restricting my ability to actively work but starting a newsletter felt like something I was capable of doing.
So I created a free ConvertKit account, started the email list, built a quick landing page, and posted the sign up link on Twitter and LinkedIn to see if anyone liked the idea. I quickly got to 100 subscribers and decided to continue with the project.
The newsletter itself is very simple. It’s sent every other weeks and includes five active open innovation opportunities that have deadlines in the coming weeks. Since the subscribers aren’t limited to a particular industry, I try to send opportunities across 5 different industries so there is something for everyone.
Building the SaaS Product
After doing the newsletter for a few months, subscribers had a few common requests:
- Can I see your entire list of future opportunities, not just the ones with a deadline in the next couple weeks?
- Can I see your list of past opportunities, in case there is one relevant to a sales prospect I’m currently pitching?
- Can I get a real-time alert when there’s a new opportunity that’s relevant to my startup?
After hearing these requests a few times, I decided to build a paid microSaaS product with these features. Around this same time, I was teaching myself React and NodeJS to build personal projects (a story for another time) and decided to build the product with that stack.
It wasn’t easy. Being an inexperienced developer, I ran into a lot of problems with the initial build. Things that might have taken an afternoon for a more experienced developer took me a week or more. But after a few months of working, I was able to release an MVP product in late May 2021.
There were a lot of mistakes I made in growing the project, the biggest of which was simply not spending enough time trying to grow it. As someone who helps companies grow for a living, it may be surprising to hear that but the phrase “the cobbler’s children have no shoes” has a lot of truth to it. Being honest, growing Open Innovation Leads was just never at the top of my priority list.
That said, one of the best things I did was get prepaid commitments from a handful of users who were requesting features. These users agreed to pay $200/year to get early access to the product and provide feedback. They certainly did their part. Where I struggled was incorporating their feedback to fix bugs and build new features. This goes back to being an inexperienced developer. Things that would take minutes for someone more experienced would take me hours, further reducing the amount of time I could spend thinking about growth (keep in mind this was a nights and weekends project).
I was able to get a few more paid subscribers via existing newsletter subscribers but beyond that I didn’t really do anything to grow the customer base. One good thing about the paid product is it has had zero churn – literally zero people have unsubscribed so far. So it must be helping the people who are using it.
Reflections and Lessons Learned
The next time I build a product (this certainly won’t be my last), there are a few things I’ll do differently:
- Be more proactive outsourcing things I don’t do particularly well. While I did outsource certain parts of development, I took on more than I could handle because I also wanted to build my own skills as a developer, which created the growth issues mentioned above.
- Lean into early users more. People genuinely seem to want to help early stage products if the builders are making a genuine effort to solve problems so I will spend even more effort on working with those early users next time.
- Promote more. I didn’t promote this project much in part because I was constantly embarrassed by where the product was versus where I thought it should be. In my mind, I was waiting to promote when the product was “ready”. But as anyone who has built anything knows, the product is never going to be ready. It’s a constant building process. So I will promote early and often next time.
Selling Open Innovation Leads
In December, I came to the realization that I would never be able to give the product the time and attention it needs to grow. So I decided to sell. It wasn’t an easy decision because in some ways, it felt like giving up. And if you know me, you know I’m really stubborn about giving up, even when it makes logical sense. But it needed to be done to make time for other projects.
The actual sale process was surprisingly simple. I posted Open Innovation Leads on MicroAcquire, linked our Stripe account, and after getting approved, I had about a dozen serious inquiries within 24 hours. Within 4 days, I’d signed a Letter of Intent (LOI). And within 2 weeks, we closed. Super easy and I can say with full confidence that MicroAcquire is the real deal. Use it if you have the opportunity!
The group that bought Open Innovation Leads fills in a lot of the gaps in my skill set, especially on the product side. I’ll still be involved and retained some equity but will not be leading the project day to day. This is the ideal situation for me. With the other projects I’m working on, I can still be helpful to Open Innovation Leads but won’t have to do the things I don’t have the time, skills, or interest in doing.
I’m extremely grateful for everyone who supported Open Innovation Leads over the past 16 months. I expect you’ll see a lot of new features in the app soon which will hopefully make it even more useful to you. I’m proud to have gone through this journey start to finish and am excited for the next stage!