The Rise of Artisan SaaS
Or "The "Linear-ization" of SaaS"
If you're a part of the design and product worlds, no doubt you've noticed the proliferation of SaaS products with dark mode, gradient glows and command pallets. Today, everyone's copying Linear, but honestly, we've seen this sort of thing before with Stripe. And while everyone loves to poke a little fun at the tidal wave of copycats, I believe the product trend goes much deeper than the designs themselves.
That’s what I want to focus on today.
We can call this trend Artisan SaaS.
I use the word "artisan" because it embodies a high sense of value (whether perceived or realized), an emphasis on the user’s experience, and extreme attention to detail.
In this article I want to:
break down the anatomy of Artisan SaaS companies...
...and give you my predictions of how it will shape product development in 2023.
Welcome to Making Product Sense!
I’m Jacob, a product-focused founder in the trenches sharing product lessons from the best companies on the planet.
The Anatomy of Artisan SaaS
Artisan SaaS can be identified by its aesthetic, sure. But more importantly, by its relentless commitment to the user's experience. After scouring dozens of websites for Artisan SaaS companies, I’ve boiled it down to these four character traits:
Reinvention (possibly the most impactful)
This obsession with speed was popularized by Superhuman who used their sub-100ms interaction time as one of their key differentiators in a market dominated by Gmail and Outlook. We've since seen a crop of "Superhuman for X" companies promise unparalleled speed for their particular niche.
But this need for speed goes beyond mere interaction times. It also applies to the speed of getting things done. According to the “Jobs To Be Done” framework, customers use a product to accomplish a specific task. So the faster and more efficiently a product can help them get the job done, the better. Artisan SaaS products emphasize templates, snippets, keyboard shortcuts and a myriad of other technological efficiencies to give their users superpowers.
Perhaps the most notable of these superpowers is the Command Pallet which you'll find in every Artisan SaaS company. Or, in the case of Raycast or Command+E, the product literally IS the command pallet.
The second characteristic of Artisan SaaS is the highly opinionated workflows. Whether your love or hate them, they're unapologetic about their decisions. This can take the form of automations, intentional limitations, choice of platforms, design patterns or any number of other opinions baked into the product experience.
All products exist on a continuum of opinionated software. Artisan SaaS just likes to live in the extremes. Take the Arc browser by The Browser Company for example. It automatically archives tabs that you haven't interacted with in 24 hours because they felt like it was the best way to keep your tabs clean and organized. Is that for everyone? No. But is it significantly better than the alternative? They certainly think so (and so do I).
This third characteristic is the most noticeable among Artisan SaaS products. An extreme attention to brand. To these companies, the brand is just as important as the product... to some, maybe even to a fault.
Artisan SaaS companies aren't embarrassed by v1 anymore. They launch out of the gate with bells and whistles like dark mode and a slick looking website. Some might say they have lost the early scrappiness of the startup ethos. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think dev and design tools have evolved to a place where getting from zero to hero is much more accessible from the start. And as a result, brand is treated like a first-class citizen. You don't have to look any further than Linear to find a product that is really friggin' cool with a marketing website that's arguably even cooler.
The final (and most interesting) mark of a true Artisan SaaS company is the reinvention of a digital utility. To illustrate what I'm talking about, we have to zoom out a bit and look at all of the companies who are a part of the trend.
Take Superhuman, Vimcal, Clay, or Arc... what do these tools have in common? They're all "digital utilities". Email, calendar, contacts and browser respectively. There are dozens of other examples just like these of tools that have been free and ubiquitous since the dawn of the consumer internet, serving billions of people every single day.
But new challengers have arrived on the scene.
Challengers that promise to reinvent the boring, free utilities of the internet.
Until now, competing with Google, Microsoft or Apple was a death wish. They had armies of engineers and designers - some of the best in the world - assigned to these tools that they were giving away for free. Any competitors who tried to charge for something similar was promptly laughed out the room.
So what changed?
If you look at the free utilities of the last decade, they haven’t evolved much. Gmail, Outlook Calendar, Apple Contacts… have we seen any meaningful innovation in these tools? The world was hungry for premium experiences but anyone who had tried before had been crushed. We wanted blazing fast interactions that empower you to work at the speed of thought. We wanted custom workflows for us power users to help us build systems on top of the base functionality. We wanted a brand that made us feel something when we logged in instead of spending our days staring a the digital equivalent of a cubical.
And let’s not forget about the economics at play. The TAM of these utilities are enormous - in the billions - and, while only a subset will spring for a premium version of something they could get for free, we’re still talking millions of customers with a high willingness to pay. The opportunity is too good to pass up.
What changed is that there was a perfect storm of pent up demand for premium experiences, technology that gave small teams the ability to execute with incredible speed and an economic climate over the last ten years that made raising money a proverbial walk in the park.
Here are some of the challengers to the public utilities of the internet:
Browser: Chrome -> Arc
Email: Gmail -> Superhuman
Calendar: G-Cal -> Vimcal
Contacts: Google Contacts -> Clay
Project Management: Jira -> Linear
Analytics: Mixpanel -> June
Forecasting: Spreadsheet -> Causal
Task Management: Countless options -> Amie
System Commands: Alfred -> Raycast
Investing: Charles Schwab -> Fey
Did I miss any? Drop them in the comments below!
How Artisan SaaS Will Shape Product Development in 2023
This trend of Artisan SaaS isn't just an aesthetic trend like flat UIs (2013) or neumorphism (2020). It's a deeper trend of bringing more intentionality to software. It's part form, part function. And I believe it's going to have a material impact on the product development landscape over the next few years. Here are my predictions for the rise of Artisan SaaS in 2023.
Prediction #1: Paying for Premium Experiences
I think the biggest trend will be a continuation of a trend we've seen beginning to play out in the last year or two. We'll begin to pay for a premium version of the previously-free utilities that we use the most.
I could use gmail for free, but I pay $99/yr for Hey.
I could use Spotify for free, but I pay $15/mo for the ad-free version.
I could use Apple Notes for free, but I (will soon) pay $15/mo for Tana.
These are the tools I use every single day. Sure, there are free versions of these digital utilities out there... but I'm happy to pay for a heightened experience of the ones I use the most.
I’m curious to see how this will play out going into a possible recession as consumers beginning tightening the belt on their expenses. But I have a feeling that since these companies are providing such a core service, it’ll be stickier than we might imagine.
Prediction #2: Greater Emphasis on Brand
The first time I scrolled through Linear's new website, I clicked through every page, even their terms of service, just to experience the brand. Going forward, we're going to see an explosion of brands that evoke strong emotion. Discovery, power, opportunity... the brands that lean into these primal desires will build a loyal base of users who are excited to open their product, even for something as boring as email.
Rahul Vohra, founder of Superhuman, talked about how his team identified, and then design for, the exact emotions they wanted their users to feel when they triaged their email and finally hit inbox zero. It was intentional, not an after thought. I wrote about that in a previous article called, "How to Get Users to Fall in Love With Your Product".
Prediction #3: Higher Bar for Usability
Until general AI is intelligent enough to anticipate our needs and solve them for us in real time, beaming the answers to our questions via our Neuralink implant, we're still going to have to point and click and type with our fingers like neanderthals. And every single mouse click or key press is valuable time.
Faster interaction speeds, keyboard shortcuts, and command pallets are all examples of the way software is getting out of our way and requiring less of our mental energy to complete a task. We'll continue to see a high bar for faster and more intuitive user experiences over the next year. I wrote about the 5 ways we, as product leaders, can reduce complexity using Notion as an example in a previous article called, "How to Build Complex Products While Avoiding Confusion".
That’s a wrap!
Catch you in the next one.
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