June 2, 2023

The Essential Guide to SaaS Product Management

The Essential Guide to SaaS Product Management

Product management is critical in any successful software-as-a-service (SaaS) business. SaaS product managers wear many hats, from understanding customer problems and need to define strategic product roadmaps and go-to-market plans.

A product management role at a SaaS company comes with specific challenges and opportunities. SaaS products are subscription-based, cloud-delivered software that requires constant development, iteration, and improvement to retain customers. SaaS product managers must adopt a more agile approach and rapidly adapt to changing market conditions.

A product manager’s key responsibilities at a SaaS business involve the following:

  • Understanding customer problems deeply by interacting directly with them and reviewing usage data
  • Synthesizing user research and requirements into product specs that engineering and design can implement
  • Ensuring the product delivers value that customers are willing to pay a subscription for
  • Defining a product roadmap that balances meeting immediate needs while charting a long-term course
  • Communicating the product vision internally to align the team and externally to convey value to customers
  • Measuring product-market fit and iterating based on metrics and user feedback
  • Rethinking the product based on shifting market conditions and emerging technologies

If you’re just stepping into a product management role at a SaaS company, this guide will give you the essential knowledge and actionable tips you need to succeed. We’ll cover the following:

  1. Understanding the SaaS customer lifecycle
  2. Building product requirements and specifications
  3. Aligning product and business strategy
  4. Launching a minimum viable product (MVP)
  5. Using metrics to improve your product iteratively
  6. Gathering customer feedback through different channels
  7. Prioritizing the product roadmap
  8. Managing product development at a SaaS company
  9. Marketing your SaaS product effectively
  10. Cultivating an agile mindset

Let’s get to each topic deeply.

Understanding the SaaS customer lifecycle

A SaaS company’s customer journey and needs differ significantly from traditional software. Customers interact with your product continuously through a subscription versus a one-time purchase. This ongoing relationship comes with unique considerations.

The customer lifecycle for a typical SaaS business involves several stages:

Awareness: Potential customers first become aware of your company and product through marketing, word-of-mouth, or industry buzz. Your goal is to pique their interest and get them to learn more.

Trial: Customers try out your product, ideally for free, to determine if it solves their problems. The trial experience must be frictionless and provide value upfront.

Adoption: After signing up, customers go through an adoption phase where they integrate your product into their workflows and begin using it regularly. Ease of adoption and onboarding support is key.

Activation: Customers move from simple use to activation when they realize specific business value from your product. Activation reduces churn and ensures they renew subscriptions.

Expansion: Customers increase their usage of your product over time by adding more seats or upgrading tiers. You can introduce new features to facilitate expansion.

Retention: The percentage of customers who renew subscriptions after the initial term signals retention. You must continue fulfilling their needs to prevent churn.

Advocacy: Your most satisfied customers become advocates, referring you to their network and singing your praises. Build a community of advocates.

As a product manager, understanding where customers are in this lifecycle helps you prioritize features, marketing messages, and support to improve activation, expansion, and retention. You’ll also identify new needs as customers progress along the journey.

Building product requirements and specifications

To successfully build your SaaS product, you need clear and comprehensive requirements and specifications that guide engineering, design, and development. This involves:

User stories: Capture requirements as simple user stories that follow the "As a , I want so that " format. Prioritize stories based on business goals and customer needs.

Functional specs: Translate user stories into detailed functional specifications that define how each feature or enhancement will work from a user’s perspective.

Data models: Define data entities, attributes, and relationships to determine how customer and usage data will be stored and accessed.

Wireframes: Create simple visual representations of key screens and interactions to illustrate the user experience. Wireframes catch design issues early.

Prototypes: Build clickable prototypes that map to your functional specs. Prototypes get valuable feedback before development begins.

Non-functional requirements: Define parameters like performance, scalability, security, backup/restore, and uptime that your software must meet.

An engineering spec: Provide a comprehensive technical specification for developers, covering APIs, frameworks, coding standards, and infrastructure.

Iterate requirements continuously based on customer feedback, market changes, and lessons learned. As your SaaS product evolves, so do its specifications. Take an agile approach, refining specs in short cycles versus long waterfall projects.

As a product manager, I work closely with engineering, design, and customers to develop high-quality requirements that result in the product your customers truly need and will love. Focus on outcomes, not output, using the minimum specs necessary.

Aligning product and business strategy

For any SaaS business to succeed, its product and business strategy must be tightly aligned. As a product manager, part of your job involves ensuring the product roadmap supports overarching business goals. This requires:

Understanding the company’s business model: Is it based on high volume and low subscriptions, premium offerings for high-value customers, or a hybrid approach? How does the product enable this model?

Connecting product features to business metrics: Tie each feature or initiative to how it will impact key metrics like churn, upsell rates, customer lifetime value, net promoter score, and revenue.

Defining the target customer: Who are you trying to serve with the product? Be specific in terms of demographics, firmographics, and buyer personas. The product must meet their needs.

Focusing on pain points, not features: Solve real customer problems that they are willing to pay for - don’t just pile on extra features.

Setting product-market fit as a strategic goal: Design your roadmap to achieve and maintain product-market fit over time. This indicates business success.

Revisiting the product vision: Regularly re-evaluate your vision statement to ensure alignment with business reality. Adapt the vision as needed.

Tracking OKRs: Use objectives and key results (OKRs) that connect product goals to a wider business and financial goals. Cascade OKRs down to the team.

Presenting the business case for new initiatives: Quantify how each feature, capability, or project will impact the bottom line. Get buy-in from stakeholders.

Operating as a business-minded product manager, not just a tech one: Think like an entrepreneur about value creation, demand generation, and profitable growth.

By ensuring fluent communication between the product and the rest of the business - marketing, sales, support, and finance - you can develop an aligned strategy that maximizes the value of your SaaS product for customers and shareholders alike.

Launching a minimum viable product (MVP)

Launching an initial minimum viable product (MVP) is critical for any startup SaaS business. An MVP allows you to:

  • Test key assumptions about customer needs and problems
  • Receive early feedback to iterate and improve the product
  • Generate initial traction and usage data
  • Acquire first customers to build a more resilient business

However, many SaaS startups struggle to launch a high-quality MVP that provides value and gains user traction. As a product manager, your role is crucial in defining and launching an effective MVP, which involves:

Narrowing the scope: Resist the urge to build everything at once. Identify the smallest features that let early customers use the product in a limited but valuable way.

Focusing on needs, not wants: Prioritize features that solve critical customer needs versus nice-to-haves. Needs motivate customers to take action and pay.

Building for learning, not perfection: The purpose of an MVP is to learn quickly through real usage, not launch a perfect product. Speed to market matters most.

Ensuring ease of use: Even a simple MVP must be intuitive and hassle-free for first-time users. Onboard them effectively.

Pricing accessibly: Low initial pricing can lower friction for first customers and give you leeway to increase the price later.

Launching iteratively: Quickly incorporate early feedback into v2 of your MVP to improve usefulness and engagement. Then iterate continuously.

Measuring traction: Track metrics like activations, time on site, feature usage, and churn from the outset. See what’s working.

Marketing effectively: Promote your MVP through channels that allow you to test different marketing messages and creativity.

Just because an MVP is minimal does not mean it cannot provide immense value for early customers and crucial learning for your business. Done right, an MVP can set the stage for long-term success. As a SaaS product manager, help define and launch the optimal MVP for your startup.

Using metrics to improve your product iteratively

Metrics are the lifeblood of any SaaS product. As a product manager, you must religiously track and analyze key metrics to continuously iterate and improve your offering. Important metrics include:

Activation rate: The percentage of trial or free users who become paid customers. It shows how well your product resonates.

Churn rate - The percentage of customers lost in a given period. It must be kept very low for a sustainable SaaS.

Net retention/expansion rate: The percentage change in customer revenue over time. Indicates if customers are upgrading/buying more.

Revenue per user (ARPU): The average revenue generated from each customer. Identifies high and low-value segments.

Net promoter score (NPS): Customer satisfaction and likelihood to recommend on a scale from -100 to 100.

Cohort analysis: Examining how groups of customers acquired in the same period behave over time. Reveals trends.

Feature usage: How often specific product features are utilized. It shows what’s valuable and what needs improvement.

Customer support tickets: Analyzing ticket volumes and types indicates product pain points and confusion to address.

Surveys and feedback: Formal and informal user research provides qualitative insights to complement quantitative metrics.

Through metrics, you can identify areas for improvement, gauge the efficacy of releases and experiments, and measure progress toward OKRs. Look for correlations between metrics to reveal causal relationships.

Iterate based on metrics by:

  • Prioritizing features that improve activation, NPS, and retention
  • Targeting customers with high churn, low expansion, or support issues
  • AB testing new features, copies, or functionality
  • Redesigning or deprecating underperforming capabilities
  • Improving or decreasing pricing as utilization patterns change
  • Updating product documentation to align with usage

Relentlessly measure, analyze, and act on metrics in a data-driven manner to continually move your SaaS product forward. Over time, track how metrics evolve to gauge your progress.

Gathering customer feedback through different channels

You need constant feedback from happy, dissatisfied, and lost customers to build the right SaaS product. As a product manager, you should gather input through multiple channels:

Surveys: Send periodic product satisfaction surveys or “pulse” surveys for quick feedback. Focus questions on usability, usefulness, and likelihood of a recommendation.

Focus groups: Host in-person or virtual sessions with a subset of customers to dive deeper into specific topics. Users often inspire each other.

Interviews: Conduct one-on-one conversations with key customers to gather rich qualitative insights into how they use your product and what could be improved.

Support tickets: Monitor tickets for recurring issues or confusion that indicate product gaps to fix. Engage customers for follow-up feedback.

Community forums: Listen in on customers’ public discussions about your product. Respond to provide support and gain fresh perspectives.

Roadmap voting: Give customers a voice in prioritizing your product roadmap by voting on candidate features. Learn what matters most to them.

Beta programs: Provide early access to new releases in exchange for feedback that improves the overall experience before a public launch.

Feedback mechanisms: Embed feedback forms, comments, and rating systems within your product for “in-situ” user input at the point of pain or delight.

Customer advisory boards: Form a select group of engaged customers who meet periodically with your team to review the product’s direction in depth.

Net promotor questions: Ask customers open-ended versions of “Would you recommend this product?” and “Why or why not?” for qualitative insight.

Gathering feedback through diverse mediums exposes your product to a wider range of customer perspectives. Look for patterns of agreement and divergence, then form hypotheses to test and improve.

Always thank customers for their input and communicate how it influences product decisions. By keeping the feedback loop open and two-way, you cultivate engaged users who champion your SaaS business.

Prioritizing the product roadmap

Balancing current customers’ needs while charting a course for the future is a constant challenge for SaaS product managers. Prioritizing your product roadmap involves:

Understanding immediate needs: Gather feedback from active customers on issues or gaps preventing them from deriving full value. Fix asap.

Listening to lost customers: Contact customers who churned to understand why. Their feedback often reveals high-priority improvements.

Focusing on activation: Early features that facilitate onboarding, ease of use, and delivering initial value should take priority.

Amplifying ‘viral loops’: Identify features that make customers more productive or successful, motivating them to recommend your product.

Improving efficiency/reducing friction: Reduce steps, loading times, confusion, and other frictions that impede the customer experience.

Experimenting responsibly: Consider A/B testing new features or pricing models that could meaningfully impact metrics like NPS. But monitor closely.

Promoting power users: Identify the high-value features or capabilities your most engaged customers desire. They indicate broader potential.

Examining ‘adjacent possibilities’: Consider innovations that expand your total available market by serving new customer segments with similar needs.

Looking ahead 5+ years: While executing shorter-term plans, consider big technological shifts or market forces that could reshape your product over the long haul.

Seeking ‘divergent truth’: Intentionally seek contrasting perspectives on priorities from customers, partners, and your team to challenge groupthink.

When prioritizing your roadmap, key factors include urgency, business impact, operational feasibility, product vision, and strategy alignment. Balance the needs of investing in the base business while exploring new avenues for long-term differentiation and defensibility.

Prioritization is an iterative process that requires constantly evaluating customer insights, market conditions, and internal resources. Be willing to adjust or “rek prioritize” your roadmap over time-based new learnings to stay responsive to changing realities.

Managing product development at a SaaS company

Managing the development process and team responsible for building your SaaS product presents unique demands and opportunities. As a product manager, you’ll likely:

Adopt an agile development approach: Short, iterative 2-4 week cycles allow for faster adaptation and more incremental value delivery. Scale framework as needed.

Establish OKRs and track progress: Use product and business objectives/key results to align engineers, provide transparency and gauge development productivity.

Write and refine user stories: Capture and clarify requirements for each functionality the engineering team can translate into technical tasks.

Prioritize the backlog: Work with engineering and the business to order user stories in the development queue based on stakeholder priorities.

Conduct grooming sessions:

  • Meet regularly with engineers to review top items in the backlog.
  • Split up large stories.
  • Estimate effort.
  • Identify risks.

Execute and facilitate sprints: Work with the scrum master to plan, facilitate and track 2-week development cycles to hit sprint goals.

Provide engineering specs: Translate user stories into technical specifications that adequately convey system and interface requirements.

Address blockers quickly: Work with engineers, management, and other teams to swiftly resolve roadblocks impeding progress.

Review and demo work: Participate in code reviews and demos at the end of each sprint to evaluate quality and compliance. Provide actionable feedback.

Drive continuous improvement: Foster a culture of learning and experimentation where failures and “technical debt” are seen as opportunities to upgrade processes.

Most importantly, establish trust with your engineering team by:

• communicating requirements and priorities

• Providing engineers autonomy within guardrails

• Defending engineers against unreasonable deadlines or scope creep

• Thanking engineers for executing your vision

• Celebrating development achievements publicly

• Treating engineers as valuable partners, not resources

As a liaison between business needs and engineering realities, your role is essential for product development that delights customers while sustaining engineer motivation, creativity, and ownership. Aim for the always elusive “just right” level of the process.

Marketing your SaaS product effectively

Marketing is a core part of the product management role at any SaaS company. As customers primarily learn about your product through your marketing, how you promote your offering can make or break it. Some key activities involve:

Identifying buyer personas: Develop detailed profiles of key customer types to inform all marketing, from messaging to channels to creative tailoring.

Crafting positioning: Determine how you want customers to think about your product relative to competitors based on unique benefits and value propositions.

Writing compelling copy: Create marketing content that speaks directly to your buyers using empathy, social proof, and personal benefits. Test, refine, and optimize.

Designing the brand: Develop logos, colors, and other brand assets that visually express what your product stands for and the problem it solves.

Creating promotional materials: Produce collateral like one-pagers, data sheets, case studies, white papers, videos, and more to educate prospects and inspire action.

Naming your product: Choose a name that aligns with your positioning, clearly communicates what you do, and can be protected legally.

Launching digital ads: Promote your SaaS offering through search, display, social and retargeting campaigns calibrated for buyers’ preferences and journeys.

Driving organic traffic: Optimize your website, blog, and other properties for relevant keywords to generate qualified leads from search and social referrals.

Developing an inbound marketing funnel: Leverage content, webinars, ebooks, and other assets at each stage to systematically move prospects closer to becoming customers.

Monitoring marketing performance: Track and optimize your marketing initiatives based on ROI metrics like lead volume and quality, inbound traffic sources, funnel stage progress, and more.

While marketing may not fall formally under your responsibility, as a product manager, work closely with your team to ensure your SaaS offering is presented strategically, creatively, and convincingly across all marketing touchpoints. Only then can you attract and delight the right customers for long-term success.

Cultivating an agile mindset

To succeed as a product manager at a SaaS company, you must develop an agile mindset that embraces several core principles:

Focus on outcomes, not outputs: Work toward achieving desired business results versus specific product releases or features. Stay outcome-driven.

Move fast and iterate: Adopt a philosophy of ‘launch and learn,’ getting something shippable quickly to gain feedback, then refining rapidly through iterations. Speed matters.

Embrace uncertainty: Comfort with ambiguity becomes a superpower, letting you navigate the ‘og of war’ around constantly shifting customers and markets. Remain nimble.

Think long term, act short term: Balance envisioning a multi-year product vision while executing plans in 2-4 week cycles to manage complexity and achieve momentum. Iterate strategically.

Value responding over planning: Be laser-focused on solving customers’ most urgent and important problems now versus following a rigid long-term plan. Plans rarely survive first contact.

Experiment, measure, learn: Use experiments, A/B tests, and metrics to identify product-market fit gaps that require changes in direction constantly. Turn learnings into actions quickly.

Seek diverse perspectives: Resist ‘my team’ thinking by soliciting feedback and input from cross-functional partners, customers, and competitors. Challenge groupthink and assumptions constantly.

Remain user-centered: Always return to what truly serves the customer by reducing pain points, risks, and effort. Superior user experience drives SaaS success.

Maintain a beginner’s mind: See every problem, process, and interaction with a fresh perspective. Avoid getting trapped in “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

Stay adaptable: While providing strategic guidance, develop the mental and emotional flexibility to zig when needed versus just zagging in response. Be proactive where possible.

An agile mindset helps you deal with the high uncertainty and ambiguity of SaaS product management. This approach favors experimentation and adaptation over detailed planning, which can quickly become obsolete. Adopting these principles will allow you to succeed in a dynamic world where customers’ needs, technology, and markets constantly evolve.

The Power of Product Demos

Product demos are among the most powerful tools in any SaaS product manager’s toolbox. Demonstrating your product in action can:

  • Convey value propositions in a compelling way
  • Showcase key features and capabilities visually
  • Provide interactive “test drives” for prospects
  • Help sales close more deals
  • Drive organic word-of-mouth referrals
  • Gather feedback to improve the user experience

However, creating effective product demos that showcase your true value can be challenging. As a product manager, you’ll likely encounter issues like:

  • Lack of resources to produce high-fidelity demo content
  • Difficulty maintaining demo content that’s up-to-date
  • Inability to cater demos to different personas and scenarios
  • Constraints capturing dynamic product behaviors and inputs

This is where a tool like Folio can help. Folio allows anyone - even non-technical users - to easily:

  • Record interactive screen recordings of your product in use
  • Add narration, annotations, zooming, and arrows for clarity
  • Have input fields, checkboxes, and form widgets work
  • Share demos via a unique URL or embed code
  • Edit and update demos at any time

Folio product demos can be tailored to different stages of the Buyer’s Journey - from generating awareness to facilitating trials to helping sales close deals. And customers report up to 3x more effective demos that translate into:

  • 200% increase in conversion rates
  • 30% compression in sales cycles
  • 10-15% increase in average contract values

So consider using an interactive product demo tool like Folio to give your product demos - and your marketing, sales, and customer success efforts - a major boost. Interactive, up-to-date product demonstrations can supercharge your SaaS business by clearly illustrating the value and solving problems for prospects and customers.


Product management is a challenging but ultimately rewarding role for any SaaS business. Applying the principles and best practices outlined in this guide can help shepherd your product from MVP to maturity, delighting customers and driving business growth at every step.

The keys to success as a SaaS product manager include the following:

  1. Deeply understanding customer needs and buying patterns throughout their journey
  2. Rigorously measuring and optimizing engagement, retention, expansion, and other key metrics
  3. Building the required product specifications and roadmap in an agile, iterative manner
  4. Ensuring continuous alignment between product and wider business objectives
  5. Gathering candid feedback through qualitative and quantitative research constantly
  6. Prioritizing features and initiatives that improve activation rates, reduce churn and increase the lifetime value
  7. Managing development teams and processes that balance empathy, transparency, and efficiency
  8. Creating interactive product demos that compellingly illustrate the value and solve prospects’ problems
  9. Adopting an agile mindset that embraces experimentation, rapid iteration, and data-driven decision making
  10. Thinking long-term strategically while acting tactically in short cycles that deliver fast business impact
  11. Cultivating a customer-obsessed culture throughout your SaaS company to always put users first

Being a product manager is as much an art as a science. There will be inevitable setbacks, failures, and surprises along the way. But ultimately, your role exists to serve customers through your software product.

If you can constantly expand your understanding of their jobs-to-be-done, pains, and workflows, then map that empathy into a product roadmap, strategy, and development cycles that help them - you will find deeper meaning and satisfaction in your work.

The journey of developing a great SaaS product never truly ends. But by staying laser-focused on your customers’ needs and out-innovating competitors ruthlessly on their behalf, you can help build a flourishing business that makes a difference.

Being a product manager at a SaaS company affords you a unique opportunity to bring value to people’s lives through software. Keeping that customer-driven mission at the heart of everything you do will guide you toward product management success.

Cover Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng

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