Founder Spotlight: Anthony N. Simon, Panelbear, and Finding Founder-Market Fit

Welcome to the FIRST EVER post in my Founder Spotlight series!

In these posts, I’m interviewing founders from just about anywhere. No criteria on company size or industry, so long as the founder is willing to be open and honest about their journey.

First up is Anthony N. Simon, founder of Panelbear. I use Panelbear for Market Research for Startups, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a frontend monitoring tool that is easy, powerful, and founder-friendly.

First, a bit about you. What are you about? What’s your background? What prompted you to venture out on your own?

Hey! I’ve been building stuff since I can remember. From a most-downloaded iOS game to short films to experimental VR games to various popular open source projects.

For the past years I’ve been working as an Engineering Lead at a popular e-commerce search engine, but recently quit my job to fully focus on my side business. It’s a frontend monitoring SaaS called Panelbear.

The business is still in the early stages, but recently crossed 2,500+ websites using it and more than tripled MRR since I quit my job.

Based on the projected growth numbers it will take at least another 1-2 years until I can pay myself a salary similar to what I was making at my last job, so a big part of the journey has been about managing my own expectations and setting realistic goals for each month.

The reason I mention this is because I believe running a SaaS is a marathon. Building trust in your product can take a long time, so I try not to run out of gas early in the game.

Wow! But more about Panelbear. What does it do? Who is it for? Why should people use it?

Panelbear is a simple website monitoring tool. It’s the easiest* way to measure traffic and performance metrics for your site.

You add a simple script into your website, and whenever someone visits one of your pages Panelbear will automatically collect, anonymize and summarize the insights on your dashboard.

Why would you want this?

If you own a website, you probably want to ensure each and every visitor has a great experience.

You put a lot of effort into building a website and trying to get people to check it out. So the last thing you’d want is for visitors to leave because it’s too slow or confusing to use.

It can also help save time and money. By knowing which content is most popular and who is sending traffic to your website, you can focus your efforts on what actually makes a difference.

*Quick note from Nick: When Anthony says this Panelbear is the easiest way to measure traffic and performance, he’s not exaggerating. I almost laughed at just how easy this was to set up!

Did you do market research before launching Panelbear? If so, what kind? And what did you learn about your market?

To be honest, I didn’t do enough research before launching the MVP. Having a go-to-market strategy would have saved me a lot of time and effort down the road.

Back when I started Panelbear, it was a side project. I built it because I couldn’t find a solution for a problem I had: anonymous website traffic and performance analytics.

While Panelbear got thousands of sign ups within the first few months, I quickly realized that the problem I really wanted to solve (observability), was not the one I was anchoring my product messaging to (privacy friendly analytics). Over time I realized this mismatch was leading to a Founder-Market fit problem, and I was running out of steam even when things were actually going great.

So I decided to pivot. This time, I evaluated which Jobs-to-be-Done I had a burning desire to solve for my customers, and wrote various docs on the new positioning and a Go-to Market Strategy.

I tested the waters to ensure my customers were onboard, and after gauging interest I quit my job to go full time on Panelbear.

I set myself the goal of growing revenue 20% MoM until end of 2022. Challenging, but doable.

So far every month I’ve beaten that target by a healthy margin and I feel ecstatic to work on the product every day. I’m confident the pivot was the right move.

Lesson learned: As a founder, you don’t need to plan every move in advance, but you should have an idea of where you’re headed and whether that’s what you actually want. After all, you’re the captain of your ship.

Beyond customer feedback, what kind of market research are you doing these days? What have you been learning lately about your market?

I write a lot of strategy docs even if it’s a one person business. These notes help me clarify my thoughts before putting things into motion.

These include things like who my main competitors are, how big the total addressable market is, what urgent problems am I trying to solve, which distribution channels might be worth exploring, and so on.

For example, I have a doc which describes the Jobs-to-be-Done of my customers and another doc for the Go-to Market Strategy. These help me craft a consistent message for every blog post and landing page, and also help me decide which new features might matter the most to my customers.

Another great resource are investor update presentations from large public companies in my industry. These presentations often contain a lot of relevant insights on where the overall market is going, which help me stay informed of major developments.

In addition to customer feedback, I experienced the paint points first hand during my time as an engineering lead. My team used to run global infrastructure for a high traffic website, and observability tools were absolutely essential for us. I draw a lot of inspiration from that time.

Making monitoring simpler for a wider audience is what I’m trying to do with Panelbear.

You may still be early-on in your startup journey, but what are you most proud of so far? What milestones have you hit?

While it’s only been a little more than a year since I launched Panelbear, MRR has more than tripled over the past quarter. This upwards movement started around the time of the pivot and when I went full time on the business.

I’m most proud of building something that people are willing to pay for, no matter the revenue milestone. I get a Slack notification for every customer that stays after the trial, and it fills me with joy every single time.

I don’t think most people realize that it’s incredibly difficult to motivate someone to take out their credit card and exchange their hard earned money for something you’ve built.

It’s too easy to believe that everyone is effortlessly “making it” these days. Specially if you follow the entrepreneur/bootstrapped community on Twitter. It’s like Instagram but about businesses.

Every success story looks amazing on the outside, but most fail to illustrate the massive effort and constant ups and downs that were needed to get there.

That’s why I set myself growth goals that are realistic but challenging enough to stay motivated in the long run. I believe you can make your own luck, you just have to keep moving a little bit every day.

Awesome. This is valuable stuff. To close, what’s one piece of advice you’d give a founder looking to build and launch their first-ever product?

If I was starting over, I’d love be able to give myself the advice: have a go-to-market strategy before launch, even if basic.

In a competitive market, how you position and distribute your product is just as important as solving a painful problem for your customers.

After all, you can have a great product, but nobody will use it if they don’t know about it or if you fail to communicate why they should use it vs whatever they are doing right now (whether it’s a competing product or an alternative approach).

For example, you could write a one-page summary of:

  1. Problem: What urgent problem are you addressing?
  2. Customer: Who are you helping?
  3. Positioning: Why you and not the alternative?
  4. Messaging: What image do you want the customer to have about your product?
  5. Distribution: How will you move your message to potential customers? How will they find out about your product?

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, a single page is enough to bring clarity to your own thoughts.

Thanks! One more thing, just for fun: Imagine you’re required to take a month-long vacation. Someone else is paying. Where would you go? What would you do?

I’d spend the month in New Zealand. I was super lucky to go there on vacation several years ago, and I’d do it again. Great outdoors, amazing hikes, and incredibly friendly people – so recharging!

To learn more from Anthony, you can follow him on Twitter or his personal blog.

Inspired by Anthony’s story? Launch your own market research survey today. Every successful venture begins with feedback from real consumers. Let’s get building!