How To Price Your Web App (SaaS) Without Losing Customers

The great thing about working in an Internet start-up is the learning we get to do every single day of our lives. We don’t always know the right answers to every question we face, but the very nature of the web lets us try out new ideas and quickly adapt them to achieve the best results for our online businesses. And one of the biggest questions faced by any web based startup is how to price your web app?

The Big Kahuna Question Faced by Many Start-Ups

How to price your web app, a classic question faced by many web startups

How much to charge without scaring away customers

The Cinergix team faced this ‘hard’ question 3 months ago when we launched our online diagramming service, Creately, to the public. After being in beta for almost a year, where we spent a lot of time and effort in engineering, we were faced with the question of how much to charge for our service. Of course, we had tons of ideas and projections in our business plan, but now that it was finally time to start generating an income, we weren’t exactly sure how much our customers should be paying for our collaborative diagramming application.

Our customers’ feedback and reviews told us we had a service that was loved and valued by users, but we struggled to quantify this value. Creately was being used in small businesses, software and design companies, startups as well as by students from all around the globe. We felt Creately would be valued differently by each group – depending on what they used it for.

Economic return plays a major part

A web design agency using Creately to work collaboratively on a Web Site project with their clients receives immediate economic value by shortening the turnaround time of designs and raising customer satisfaction. This would make Creately a valued tool – in essence allowing us to charge a “Premium” to this customer. But a student using Creately may not see such immediate economic returns, and hence would not be willing or able to pay the same price.

Faced with this dichotomy of users and our desire to ensure Creately remained accessible to everyone who needed it, we devised a simple Pricing Experiment. This would help us better understand Creately’s perceived value to our customers and help us get a data driven answer to the question “How to price your web app ?”.

The Innovative Pricing Experiment

We set up a new Creately Plus plan and decided we would let our customers choose how much they would pay for Creately each month. We called it the “Pay What You Want” offer and set about putting the plan into action.

Purchase screenshot with name your price option

Letting the customers decide the price of the app

We set up a simple Upgrade page (see screenshot below) with sample prices of similar diagramming applications, and launched it with a Press Release and a newsletter to all our beta users. The experiment would run for 2 weeks and we hoped to get a better sense of our customers and how much each of them valued Creately.

Unexpected Marketing Leverage

This also proved to be a bit of a marketing coup. I thought we had an interesting story with our PWYW plan, so instead of putting out a Press Release announcing the launch of Creately  – we pitched the unique “PWYW” pricing angle. This lead to stories on TechCrunch, and a host of other blogs. We didn’t realize this at the time, but not many people (besides Radiohead) have tried this before.

The Results from Pay Your Own Price Test

I would be lying if I said we were not pleasantly surprised by the initial results of our experiment. This along with the publicity we received convinced us to continue to run the pricing experiment for 2 months instead of the planned 2 weeks.

We received a wide range of offers from $1 (the minimum allowed) to $100, with the mean ranging between $4-$5 and a median of $3.

  • Customers who paid $1 were mostly new users who’d heard about the PWYW plan and signed up on the first day. This group of customers was also the most likely to cancel their accounts over a period of time. Many of them did not use the application intensively and would have been fine with a Free plan.
  • Customers who paid the Mean Price of $4-5, have made good use of their Creately accounts, including creating multiples diagrams and publishing them. These customers come from a diverse range of industries including small businesses owners, marketers, teachers and students. These users have shown less propensity to cancel their accounts as they were extracting good value from their acts.
  • Customers who paid more than the Mean Price provided the most valuable insights. These customers incorporated Creately into their work and business processes and derived significant value from Creately’s collaboration capabilities. Customers in this group included tech-savvy small businesses, software teams, design companies, Webmasters and business consultancies. This group made the most use of Creately to collaborate with co-workers and clients, valuing our visual collaboration platform to communicate and solve real business problems across cross-functional teams, instead of simply using Creately as a diagramming tool.

Another very interesting point that stood out from our experiment is the difficulties that so many of our users faced with completing their subscriptions with PayPal. The complaint emails as well as a large percentage of abandoned transactions – forced us to work on alternate payment methods.

Lessons Learnt from the Pricing Experiment

Understand your users
We’ve learned that it’s very important to understand who your customer is and why someone’s your customer. No two customers are the same so it’s important to learn what each type of customer gets out of your product. This is important if you want to stay relevant to your most valuable customers and helps you focus your marketing and development investment to maximize your returns.

Give Customers What they Need (or To each his Own)
We are even more committed to the idea that Creately delivers differing levels of value to our customer. We don’t want to forgo any customers and will need to continually work to ensure Creately is available where it’s needed.

The PWYW scheme did a good job in helping us gather invaluable data on our customers, but may not be sustainable over a long run. This is due in part to the fact that although we ask people to be Fair, not everyone is. Also, for a startup with limited resources, it becomes very hard to do any real business planning & projections when you add variable pricing to the mix.

Action Plan

We’ve been working on a set of actionable activities that we worked out as a result of our experiment.

  • Make it easier for teams to work together on our visual collaboration platform, by introducing Team Projects.
  • Introduce Pro Plans that deliver greater value to customers who use Creately intensively.
  • Focus on developing a clear market position that resonates with our high-value customers.
  • Put in place a new payment infrastructure to replace Paypal. This will be announced shortly.
  • Institute a Creately Scholarship program to give access to charities, schools and colleges at deeply discounted prices.

How did you price your web app?

We may not have fixed every concern we had, but this experiment has definitely helped us identify our strengths and understand the market response to Creately. Even though we gave out quite a few Creately Plus accounts for $1, we believe the data we collected over the 2 months has more than paid for itself in terms of lost revenue.

Tell us what you think of our findings. Would you have conducted this experiment in a different way? We’d love to hear from any online service that’s faced this question before.


Some Good References on Pricing Strategies for Startups

Image by: Marco Bellucci / CC BY 2.0 & Brandon Schauer/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

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  1. Farah Sproat

    Usually I don’t read post on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, quite nice post.

  2. […] was wäre denn das beste Preismodell? Interessanterweise bin ich dabei auf einen Artikel gestossen, der ein Experiment mit dem frei wählbaren Betrag für einen Webdienst beschreibt. Dieses Vorgehen […]

  3. […] The quality of startups this year in the level 4 ‘pit’ seemed better than last, and I’m not just saying that because we were one of them. Standouts for me being insync, dropbox with added Google Apps sexiness (and possibly the loveliest website in the ‘pit’) and Creately a great product (despite the Flash) whose founders are also providing some great Hacker-news-worthy blogposts. […]

  4. […] as online tracking tools such as Kissmetrics, Google Analytics and CrazyEgg. They’ve even experimented on their pricing. In fact, Creately started by targeting regular consumers, but along the way found that corporate […]

  5. […] Creately Blog » How much to charge for your Web App? […]

  6. Thanks for all your comments, tweets and ideas.

    @Stefan – $1 was chosen because we felt that was a minimum we’d have to charge to support a user at cost after taking away Paypal’s fee, infrastructure and long term support costs. Plus we wanted to keep everything as simple as possible.

    @Max – Thanks for the link mate – that’s a nice scientific approach but our main concern to this (as you rightly pointed out) is how to actually Price discriminate without users finding out – this is especially challenge in the transparent web world. We were quite concerned that this may impact the goodwill we’d generated with our users.

    @Chris – We’re moving away from Paypal to our own merchant account and a commercial card processing gateway. The biggest challenge for us was actually convincing the banks in Australia to give us a merchant acct that could support US dollar and international currencies. Finally we’ve got this going, but it will require us to put up a fairly large term deposit as a security for the merchant account. There are other simple payment processes online that support subscriptions but we felt we wanted to have complete flexibility in our billing systems and chose to go down this path.


  7. […] Creately Blog » How much to charge for your Web App? […]

  8. Harminder

    I like how you guys took your time and didn’t rush into the decision. Sure sign of a mature organization- no juvenile jumpiness! Plus it shows your faith in the quality of your product..

  9. […] How much to charge for your Web App? – Creatly […]

  10. What sort of payment structure are you using/developing instead of paypal?

  11. Chandika

    Very interesting discussion on this at hacker news.

  12. Interesting post. I’m amazed that more people haven’t followed an approach like yours. It’s pretty obvious afterall.

    You can actually take it a step further and statistically calculate the best price. I wrote about it here:

  13. Stefan Haflidason

    Interesting approach, but what made you choose $1 as the minimum subscription value?

    Would it perhaps not have been better to set the minimum to at least your estimated average cost per user in terms of hardware, bandwidth, software maintenance etc.?

  14. I really liked your learning approach to this question. You positioned your customers as learners who are learning how to deploy your innovation effectively, and teaching you at the same time. This means you build very strong personal relations with your customer-learners. You have personalised product development as an ongoing iterative learning process and I commend you for this fresh approach. You get honest feedback by putting your idea out there on the Web. This approach allows us to question the existing assumptions of product and biz. devt. thanks to the power of the Web. Bravo and Onwards!

  15. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by creately: Creately Blog – How much to charge for your online service? #startup #entrepreneur #pricing…

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