We spoke to Userlist’s co-founder & CEO, Jane Portman, on two occassions - firstly, when Userlist was in Beta and then after its angel fundraising round in 2022.
Unlike its big-VC-backed counterparts Userlist has been built with a bootstrapping ethos, focusing only on meaningful features and resulting in an uncomplicated but uncompromising solution for early-stage and growing SaaS companies to engage their users.
Jane shared how her background as a UI/UX consultant has helped shaped Userlist’s ruthless focus on what matters most to customers. How their motto of “better done than perfect” has guided Userlist’s formative years. Why she has a love/hate relationship with email and what’s next for the customer messaging tool. Plus, so much more.
Hi Jane. Please introduce yourself and the Userlist team…
We’re a very international team of three co-founders who share the love for quality software. I’m based in Russia and responsible for all things product and UI/UX, Claire Suellentrop (our marketing brain) is from the US, and Benedikt Deicke (our technical wizard) is from Germany.
How would you describe Userlist?
Userlist is a tool that sends behavior-based messages to your SaaS users. It’s great for onboarding users and nurturing them throughout their journey. We also provide an admin dashboard, so that you can see who your users are, segment them, and see what they’re doing.
Unlike other tools, we’re focusing specifically on the post-signup SaaS niche — we even explicitly prohibit its use for marketing lists.
Congratulations on attracting angel funding! Where will that take you?
This was a very interesting round, as we raised money from 22 angel investors without touching VC money. This will help us expand the team and speed up the development — all while maintaining full decision-making power. We’ve built a great brand, and now it’s perfect time to put fuel on the fire.
What was your background going into Userlist?
I’m a UI/UX consultant by trade, and also have been building products for a while — both infoproducts and SaaS. With my previous SaaS, Tiny Reminder, I was rather frustrated with the state of the automation software. When an acquisition offer came along for TR, I immediately started off with Userlist.
It’s a complex tool, so a great team was key. I had already worked with Benedikt before, so I was super-lucky that he agreed to join. And then we were both thrilled when Claire Suellentrop — previously director of marketing at Calendly — came along.
We approached Userlist very seriously, making sure that we have all formalities in place, and then gradually building an MVP based on research. We had a larger plan in mind which included other features, but then stripped them down and focused on email automation first.
I’m sure you’ve experienced the full spectrum of automation tools over the years. Where does your service fit in?
Our focus on post-signup SaaS users makes the tool simple and powerful at the same time. It’s like a lightweight version of Intercom or Customer.io tailored specifically for SaaS. You could probably get the same thing done with Drip or ConvertKit, but it won’t be nearly as fast or enjoyable. We really want SaaS people to feel at home.
We’re hoping that the upcoming in-app notifications will be another differentiator; so that our customers will be able to pick the right channel for each individual message.
Done right, why is automated email so effective? What results can a SaaS product expect?
Email is a double-edged sword: our inbox are full of emails we don’t read, yet it remains the most effective channel for re-engaging users. So in our books, the best email is the one that’s never been sent.
"Automation tools help businesses send smarter, more targeted email with precise timing. And it’s not about blunt emails like “we saw you created your first project.” It’s more about providing an invisible hand on the way to user’s mastery."Jane Portman, Userlist
Of course not all your email will be read, but a helpful, genuine message at the right time can work wonders. Most companies are still paving their way in email game; which is great because we can help level it up.
A lot of the wiring behind behaviour-based campaigns can become overly complicated. How do you keep it manageable and enjoyable?
During our research phase, we learned that complex tree logic (that’s so common for classic marketing lists) is nearly impossible to apply in SaaS user journeys. Also, most businesses end up sending a single time-based drip campaign.
So instead of complex visual builders, we offer linear campaigns with smart logic that allows to skip irrelevant messages. As a result, the process of composing messages gets much faster and cleaner.
As a UI professional, I’ve been going crazy about products where you have to click through three times in order to get to the body of the message. It’s much easier in Userlist.
You were previously exclusively focused on in-app users. Now it’s prospects too. Why is that exciting for you and your customers?
The obvious benefit is that nobody likes to maintain multiple tools, so having both marketing customer email under one roof is very convenient. It also helps with the smooth transition from lead to customer, and addresses edge cases such as incomplete signups or cancelled trials.
What’s surprised you most about building and running Userlist so far?
User onboarding is another area of focus — not like we didn’t know about this challenge though. Figuring out what to track and what to send is equally important as actual technical details. To address that, we’ve created free email planning, campaign templates, and are providing lots of hands-on assistance.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since we last spoke?
The SaaS game is all about patience, perseverance, and staying afloat. There’s never a lack of ideas, but execution requires time, resources and focus. Both myself and Benedikt have become much wiser and learned this game. Two mottos, “slow and steady” and “better done than perfect”, have been true. Ironically, we also run podcast shows named exactly the same: Slow & Steady and Better Done Than Perfect.
"The SaaS game is all about patience, perseverance, and staying afloat."- Jane Portman, Userlist
What are your future aspirations for the tool?
More integrations, more features, more customer success efforts. The ultimate goal is to make Userlist a household name for SaaS companies out there.
Apart from Userlist, what’s your favourite digital marketing tools?
Historically, I’m very loyal towards Mailchimp — that’s where I manage my core email list for UI Breakfast Prodcast. Some of their UX decisions might be questionable, but they’re incredibly reliable, ethical and have the most charming brand. A vinyl figure of their mascot, Freddie, lives proudly on my bookshelf.
We added Pitch and Livestorm to our marketing toolbox this year. Both are delightful. They’re meticulously designed, and are solving old problems (presentations and webinars) in a beautiful modern way.
Finally, where can people find out more?
The best way is to join our mailing list and explore our blog: we’ve been publishing updates (educational as well as entertaining) from day one. If you’re ready for more action, then our free email planning worksheets are a great place to start.