MegaMaker - Is once enough?

Eight years ago, I wrote a piece asking: are we at peak SaaS? My thesis was that people were tired of paying subscriptions for software and that the SaaS market was ripe for disruption.*

Late in 2023, DHH and Jason (the founders of 37signals) started making noise with a similar thesis. They bought the ONCE.com domain and published their manifesto:

"Today, most software is a service. Not owned, but rented. Buying it enters you into a perpetual landlord–tenant agreement. Every month you pay for essentially the same thing you had last month. And if you stop paying, the software stops working. Boom, you’re evicted."

They also announced that 37signals would make a new line of software products where customers would "pay for it once, install it, and run it on their server."

Shortly after, DHH revealed (on Jason Calcanis' podcast) that the first Once product would be Campfire, a self-hosted alternative to Slack.

Twitter started buzzing. Some felt this launch could be a "Slack killer" and that Once apps might disrupt multiple established business SaaS (Notion, Asana, Trello, Hubspot, Salesforce).

Others thought 37signals would sell tens of thousands of copies to developers alone, eager to take a peek at what production code from DHH looked like.

On the internet's indie hacker / bootstrapping forums, folks resonated with 37signals' idea of a "post-SaaS revolution." Many started making plans to build their own "Once" apps.

There was a sense that this was the beginning of a new era: that the launch of Campfire would cause the pendulum to start swinging away from SaaS towards this new paradigm of "pay once, host it yourself software."

Is this the dawn of a post-SaaS era?

37signals are like the founding fathers of bootstrapped software; if they're saying the economic tides are shifting to "pay-once, on-prem" it's incumbent on us to consider their thesis.

They're predicting a wholesale shift in the market. To prove this point, 37signals would need to launch a Once product demonstrating significant market demand from customers for products they need to host themselves.

For 37signals, a company with a massive audience earning hundreds of millions in annual revenue, I'd expect that a winning Once product would sell thousands of copies monthly.

Because if 37signals can't succeed at their scale, how could a smaller indie manage it?

Results of the Campfire launch

After months of buzz, Campfire launched on Feb 1st. Anybody could buy it for $299 (once!), deploy it on their server, and use it.

A week later, DHH posted an update:

"Campfire [has] already sold more than a quarter of a million dollars."

Let's do the math:

$250k in total sales ÷ $299 cost/unit = 800 copies

800 copies?

At 37signals size, reach, and scale this doesn't seem like a launch that proves their thesis.

(On a philosophical/enjoyment scale, these results might be great for Jason/DHH. But these initial results don't validate the idea that a growing market of business customers is hungry for more on-prem software).

Considering the hype leading up to the launch, the feeling like this was the dawn of a new era, the anticipation that this could be a Slack killer, and the projections that they would sell 10,000 copies to developers alone... these early results seem underwhelming.

I reached out to two people to talk about it:

We recorded our conversation:

You can listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, and Spotify here: https://lnk.to/7wNC3l

If you listen to the episode, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts:

  • Can you think of a low-price, pay-once, on-prem software product that's succeeded? (The only one I could think of was Statamic CMS)
  • Do you think a different Once product might have made more sales? What kinds of products do you think might work?
  • Did you buy Campfire? What did you buy it for? Are you using it as a chat tool for your company?
  • Other thoughts on our discussion.

You can reply to this email (or leave a voicemail here).

Cheers,
Justin Jackson
@mijustin

PS: thank you to everyone who replied to last week's marketing tip (send your users this welcome email). It sounds like many of you have already implemented it!

PPS: Kudos to Tyler Tringas for coming up with the "Is Once enough?" subject line.


* Footnote: I think one of the reasons I wrote "SaaS is ripe for disruption" back in 2016 was that my buddy Marty and I had tried (and failed) to build a SaaS business that year. SaaS isn't easy! Not everyone who tries to build a SaaS will succeed, but it's still one of the best models for indie entrepreneurs.

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