Meet the Maker Jane Portman
from Userlist

14/05/20 | Interview by Stuart Goulden

Photo of
                    Jane Portman

Userlist is a tool that sends behavior-based messages to your SaaS users. Perfect for onboarding and keeping them active.

Userlist is an automation tool that observes your SaaS user’s behaviour and delivers emails and in-app notifications based on the actions they take.

Unlike its big-VC-backed counterparts it’s 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.

We speak to Userlist’s co-founder & CEO, Jane Portman.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Your homepage within Userlist is a directory of your users. You can add filters or dive straight into them one by one, where you can see all their events and actions.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 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.

  1. 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

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.

  1. 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.

  1. What’s surprised you most about building and running Userlist so far?

    We couldn’t predict how much time would go into building the infrastructure that isn’t even about the product: incorporating in the US as three international co-founders (a whole story in itself), finances, terms of service and privacy policy, GDPR, building the knowledge base, etc. It was very important for us to get these things right from the start. We’re playing in a very sensitive industry and want to feel confident about the formalities.

    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.

  1. What are your future aspirations for the tool?

    Right now, we’re in paid beta and preparing for a rolling public launch. After that, we’re planning to keep Userlist simple, but add other features within the same narrow niche of post-signup messaging for SaaS. Here are some of the problems/directions we’d like to address:

    • add other communication channels, such as in-app notifications;
    • provide more transparency and confidence that all automations are running smooth;
    • aggregate behavior data into human-readable insights, so that companies can see what their users typically do in their app;
    • provide other tools (such as checklists) for successful user onboarding.

    Ideally, we’d like to cover the majority of user management and onboarding needs, so that our customers don’t have to jump between multiple tools.

  1. Apart from Userlist, what’s your favourite digital marketing tool?

    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.

  1. Finally, where can people find out more?

    The best way is to join our mailing list at 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.

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