More on Vacations - Founder Ops (app management) service?

In the theme of “let me build the service I wish existed” I’ve been thinking about putting together a small group of ops / app management folks to help solo SaaS founders take vacations. Call it “Founder Ops” for the sake of discussion.

It would work like this:
a) Setup: Corey communicates common trouble scenarios & procedures for his SaaS app, sets Founder Ops team up with relevant access credentials & escalation contact info.
b) (Semi)Annually: Founder Ops verifies procedures & credentials & contact info
c) Corey pre-schedules his time away, Founder Ops runs the SaaS app to the best of their ability
d) Additional benefit: Founder Ops can provide on-demand “urgent care” if founder gets sick, hospitalized, dies(!) etc.

Pricing would be something like:

  • $600 annual “readiness” fee to keep your procedures & other info current
  • $150/day to run the ship (e.g., 2 weeks is $2100)

Basically, this is a secure & reliable team that can run your app from time to time while you’re away. If you have a dedicated contractor or 2, or a business partner who’ll trade coverage with you, you probably don’t need this service. They won’t be as knowledgable as someone who’s in your app on a weekly basis, but would be technically skilled, good with people, and used to running other people’s apps.

I don’t know whether this has legs as a business, but I’d certainly pay for it myself. I understand this is called “managed services” for larger companies, but haven’t found anyone providing this on a small scale for solo/bootstrapper types.

You seem like the right group to ask. So, shoot some holes in it. What am I missing?

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It’s certainly an interesting idea. I think an extension of this is a “SaaS Continuation Business”. Basically, a service that takes over the business if something were to happen the founder(s).

Yes, definitely. “Business Continuity” is a great term for it.

Risks certainly include: Getting & retaining good people, documentation/procedure clarity, not being capable of doing things as well as the founder, and… “Congratulations! Now you’re running a 24/7 NOC!”

It’s worth looking in to. I’m in the process of setting up procedures with my dad’s offline business (landscaping) if something were to happen to him. Made me do some thinking about my saas business.

I think the hurdle I would have a hard time getting over is handing your service all the keys to my server. Yikes. The level of trust required for that to happen is very high.

Second, the kinds of problems my server almost always encounter fall into two camps:

  • networking issues in the data center. I can’t do anything about these, all I can do is wait these out. No need to pay someone to do that for me.
  • I did something bone-headed in my app’s code and now I get to pay the price. I may be a bonehead but at least I have intimate knowledge of my source code so I can zero-in on the problem and create a fix that doesn’t have undesired side-effects quickly. For you to be able to do the same would require rather intimate knowledge of the whole app and I don’t think that’s realistic.

By the time I think you’re able to take care of my app while I’m gone, I would rather have built that relationship with a full service contractor than someone who is just going to watch and catch problems.

I think this is one of those problems where the need is very apparent but the profitable execution is hard.

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Very true. In many cases, the company would need access to your most sensitive stuff. Potentially even DNS, Paypal/Stripe, and more. Trust would be a huge issue.

I think one of the most important institutional skills would be the ability to diagnose & triage complex apps, figure out whether it’s a hosting issue or an app issue, and get the relevant parties involved for a fix. I can’t imagine having staff on hand to competently make & deploy code adjustments node, php, java, rails, python, and .NET.

Thanks for the input - great stuff.

Nice idea.

Being able to completely disconnect during a vacation is a strong value proposition, that’s for sure.

I guess that if something like this was initially targeted to e-commerce store owners, for example, it could be easier to implement.

It could be a simple way to test the concept.

In online stores, operations are simpler and quite common between different stores, so training the team would be much easier than in an app context.

Of course, the main problem here would be shipping physical products, but for those people using dropshipping or that have a fulfillment partner and for those selling digital goods, the service could be still valuable.

It’s not the same thing, but maybe taking a look at what WPcurve does gives you some ideas.

Given the trust and expertise issues raised, a different way to address the problem would be to offer information and services for automation and disaster preparedness. It could involve an ebook on documenting and automating processes, sample scripts for common LAMP tasks, consultations to assess potential problems and offer solutions, even emails sent at random to prompt the founder to check their backups, perform a disaster recovery drill, etc. Give the founder the tools to make them confident they could keep their business going while they are away as long as they have cellular data and a few minutes a day.

Clearly this approach is more of a vitamin than an aspirin, but it would allow you to build credibility as a domain expert who might then be trusted on more invasive offerings. I know some hosting companies offer disaster recovery services; perhaps there’s a way to resell them wrapped with information and consultation.

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I’ve thought about this in the past too, but as others have said, the problem is the level of trust and knowledge required to do a good job. Perhaps it would work best with more limited scope, ie rather than trying to manage every aspect of your SaaS app, they’ll provide first tier email/ticket support according to your guidelines, and offer remote monitoring with real people to ring you and wake you up. That way you could also sell to product businesses and freelancers too.

Once you’ve got established, you could look at adding on more services at different retainers and hourly rates; ie a support tier who has additional knowledge of your CMS or training in your systems, and can deal with more complex problems, or a higher tier who you trust with your code and server credentials etc. You could even turn it into a marketplace, where you sign up freelancers to different tiers, who work with specific clients to get them trained in their systems.

Also, while the rates you quoted may seem fair for a well-established business, it could be hard to justify for smaller operations. Personally, I’d prefer to spend that sort of money on extra time away to make up for whatever issues I had to deal with. I’d be happier with an option to pay a much lower monthly/annual retainer, book whatever time I want at no additional cost, then pay an hourly rate (with daily/weekly cap) when something actually happened. That way it’s linked to demand, is flexible enough for me to use throughout the year whenever I’m busy (meetings, meals out, cinema etc), and should scale with my business.

Definitely something I would be interested in, but pricing would be key; for a lot of this, you’d probably be competing with virtual assistants.

Great feedback, thanks @CescVilanova @steve & @radiac - I like the suggestions for starting small & niche, and also starting with info products & simple services for the space. As I figure those processes out for myself, it wouldn’t be much more work to document them publicly and make some simple automations. It would also be loads easier than hiring and managing a staff of 3+ (even contractors) right from the start.

Would you mind if I run with this part of my idea? I need to start learning how to build a mailing list, and this would give me some experience.

Not at all – I’ll be your first signup!