Interested in marketing, product management, customer support, design and startups? Intercom is the first to bring messaging products for sales, marketing & customer service to one platform. On our blog the Intercom team share thoughts, tips and lessons learned from five years of product building.
One of the most fundamental elements of the Intercom platform is how it handles user data – for us and our customers, the ability to access, track and filter data about users is what makes Intercom such a powerful solution.
Some important functionality hinges on matching user data against certain criteria – it’s what allows us to send auto-messages to specific users, for example. That means the process of updating the user state is extremely important, and a single user can be updated thousands of times per day. We primarily use DynamoDB to store the latest user state.
However, we realized that our Customer Support team needed more insight into the historical state of a user at a specific point in time, particularly when they needed to troubleshoot problems or verify why a specific user matched certain message criteria at a previous time.
“We wanted to allow our customer support team to self serve when digging into the historical user states”
This was not easy to do given the volume of user data. It required our engineers to dig into logs and combine all the relevant information of what happened to a user object at any given moment in time. Grepping logs is not scalable and involves a lot of manual work, which is prone to mistakes.
We thought there was probably a better way to automate a lot of the investigative work that was involved here by more efficiently surfacing historical changes in user states. We wanted to allow our customer support team to self serve when digging into the historical user states.
Leveraging existing technologies
In exploring ways to better help our customer support team, we had two main requirements:
Allow access to historical user state changes, reliably and quickly
Display this information in an easy-to-comprehend way
The self service tool needed to be optimized for writes. Users are updated frequently, but the need to troubleshoot them is infrequent. Historical user states would need to be retrieved a maximum of a few times per day, but often with days of no activity at all.
To support that, we wanted to be able to get the real-time updates of a user. DynamoDB Streams is a service that allows you to capture this table activity. Each update for a user is captured in a DynamoDB Stream event. It was a natural solution that we could leverage to develop our internal tool, called the user history tool, or UHT for short.
Building our User History Tool
When we receive a DynamoDB Stream event for a table activity, we store the update that happened to the user. We needed to persist these real-time updates without having to store all the intermediate states of the user objects because with so many updates to user states, a database table would grow too fast. In response to each event, a lambda function is triggered, where we do the processing. This operation has two main responsibilities:
Calculate the diff between the old user state and new user state in the Stream
Store the calculated diff in a dedicated user history DynamoDB table
Since the records in a DynamoDB stream are in a JSON format, we obtain the diff of two JSON objects. The diff produced is in a JSON Patch format. The patch looks like:
Together with the calculated diff, we store the user_id and sequential time to live (TTL) value. Setting TTL on a record enables us to reduce the amount of data stored. It also allows us to clean up records older than 30 days for security purposes. TTL functionality is provided by DynamoDB at no extra cost.
On the admin side, once an admin requests user history several things happen:
Current user state is read from the main user storage.
Stored diffs for the user are loaded from the user history table, paginated by 30 states at a time.
Starting with the current user state, a list of previous user states is generated by applying a JSON diff patch to each previous state.
By comparing two adjacent states, we generate an HTML representation of the user changes. Generated HTML looks a lot like Github PR changes, with old values being highlighted in red, while new values being highlighted in green, so that the changes are immediately obvious.
This is what the end-to-end architecture looks like:
The flow of processing and storing the diff patches is serverless. AWS Lamdba takes care of everything required to run and scale code with high availability.
“Thinking simple and leveraging common technologies is part of our engineering philosophy”
The UHT is now used internally by our Customer Support team and decreases the time spent on investigating problems related to the historical user states. Automating this manual repetitive task allows us to be more productive when solving our customers’ issues and eliminates the risk of making mistakes in the process.
Thinking simple and leveraging common technologies that we know and use frequently is part of our run less software philosophy. We put it in practice by picking the right, reliable technology to enable us to build a simple, elegant, serverless solution which served our needs well.
You often hear great talks about the founding story and how to drive that first phase of growth. At SaaStr, I talked about what happens after that, how you can drive your next phase of growth.
When you are starting a business, or joining a new one, you are excited and full of ideas. You probably have a goal in mind. It might be to launch a new product, to define a new category or to hit $1M in revenue.
“What you thought was the finish line was actually just the starting line”
You work hard and get there, which is amazing! You hit your goal – you launched that new product, defined that new category, hit $1M in revenue. But it turns out, that what you thought was the finish line was actually just the starting line. It turns out there is a lot more work to do. How do you keep growing?
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot through both successes and failures, and these are my top 5 strategies in scaling SaaS businesses from $1M to $500M in revenue:
Expand your market. Figure out how your product can solve the problem you originally solved, but for a broader set of customers. If you only serve your initial customers, you are stunting your future growth. If you start by serving smaller customers, the best way to expand upmarket is to do that one step at a time.
Build your next big product. Your next big product is probably right in front of you. Find it by watching what your customers do, not what they say. Ask yourself: What other important problems do your customers have? Which could you solve well?
Find product market fit again and again. It is something you need to keep focused on and find over and over, for every set of new target customers you go after, for every new product you want to create and for everything you’ve already created and every customer you already have, every year or two.
Decide your platform play. We live in a deeply interconnected world. You will never win if you choose to go it alone. Your customers don’t want you to go it alone. They want you to work with all of the other things they already use. As you get bigger the reverse is also true: they want all of the other things they use to work with you.
Build your team. You can’t do it all yourself. Invest time to build the team to take you to the next level. If you are hiring for a role that you aren’t super familiar with, or at a scale you haven’t been at before, learn and benchmark first. Then apply Lean Startup Principles to hiring by putting people in the role. Have them do the job you want them to do for a day. That way, you both know what you are getting into – it is better for you and for them.
One of the biggest challenges with marketing a SaaS product is figuring out a way to announce the continuous stream of updates and feature releases while maintaining a sense of sanity.
To stay on top of it, you need to figure out two things:
A framework for scoping announcements based on the relative value of the feature or update.
Tactics that can scale with the cadence you ship at.
We recently shared our evolving approach to scoping announcements, so I want to focus more on the second point. Specifically, the tactics for small releases that are valuable, but don’t necessarily justify a big announcement or significant resources. For these small announcements, there are two common strategies for keeping up with the volume – you can group similar features together into a single announcement, or ruthlessly prioritize and simply not announce the least impactful updates.
It’s not a groundbreaking idea, but grouping similar features into a ‘wrap-up’ announcement is a really useful tactic. First, it maximizes the touchpoints you have with customers by essentially creating a condensed list of all relevant updates.
Collectively, these updates make a single touchpoint more valuable to your customer and it’s more likely that they will engage. And by consolidating touchpoints, you’re less prone to over messaging. This wrap-up announcement can take many forms, from an email to a blog post, or even a webinar – whatever makes sense based on your resources and channels.
“The primary goal of a changelog is to increase feature awareness and adoption”
Ruthlessly prioritizing and forfeiting announcement opportunities can be difficult, especially when those choices are driven by a lack of time and resources. Not only are you faced with choices that will impact the business’ bottom-line, but you need to defend your rationale even if it relies on limited evidence and many assumptions.
This is the reality of the job for a product marketer, so it’s on you to make the most with what you have. That’s why it’s critical to develop a scalable, bare bones announcement plan that you can explain the strategy behind. It’s your safety net for covering everything that’s worthy of an announcement without digging yourself into an insurmountable hole of work. For us, this is a changelog announcement.
Start with a changelog
Nearly every one of our product announcements at Intercom will include a post to our product changes page, also known as our changelog. It’s a curated feed of relevant updates and changes that’s meant to raise customer awareness around what’s new in the product. It differs from release notes, in that it’s not just a bulleted list of technical changes, and it differs from help docs because its primary purpose is not to improve product proficiency. The primary goal of the changelog is to increase feature awareness and adoption and that’s why it’s owned by the product marketing team at Intercom. Even with this focus, a changelog can take different forms, both in structure and content, to meet the needs of your customers and your business.
Curating a changelog
Although it’s not difficult to create changelog posts, not all product changes warrant one. In general, it should be limited to the updates that are valuable to most of your customers. At Intercom, we tend to avoid posts about bug fixes, speed improvements and small updates that users don’t see value in. But it’s not always that straightforward. We have many spirited debates about whether certain changes deserve a post. And that can be a good thing. It’s the tough calls that help your team gain a shared understanding of what matters to customers and how to prioritize product announcements.
“Changelog posts should be reserved for the updates your customers care most about”
So how often should you post to your changelog? You want to announce relevant updates, but avoid overwhelming your users. You also want to avoid large gaps between posts. If there’s a year-long gap in your posts, it can give the impression that your product isn’t progressing. All this is to say that there’s no hard-and-fast rules here.
In the past year, we had 92 posts to our changelog. We’ve had up to 17 posts in a single day, and on the other end, a few weeks without a new post (it can get quiet over the holidays). Whatever your strategy is, just keep your updates relevant, somewhat consistent, and always considerate of your customers’ time, otherwise they’ll tune out.
How to create a useful changelog post
Your posts should always be clear, concise and benefit-oriented. Like any announcement, you need to distill the value in a way that resonates with customers. Be sure to include the following:
At its best, a changelog post inspires customers to use your product in more powerful ways that will in turn make them more valuable to your business. And yes, the richer the content, the better.
Want to go beyond the basics? Here are a few things to add your posts to make them shine:
Image or video
Proof-points and customer claims
Credits (show the people behind your business!)
Links to further resources
Promoting your changelog
Finally, when you’re ready to post to the changelog, consider some quick and easy ways to promote it. You can link to it at the bottom of any emails you’re sending to customer, or if it’s on-brand, share it on social media. Finally, make sure your sales and support team are aware of it, so they can share it with customers directly.
One the best things about a changelog is how flexible they can be to fit your needs. How do you approach changelogs? Let us know below 👇 or over on Twitter.
Unless your business is transactional, nurturing your existing customers should be just as important as acquiring new logos.
The way I see it, closing a deal is just the first step. It’s what comes after – onboarding, upselling and cross-selling, renewal – that determines your customers’ ability to grow with your product and, consequently, the fate of your own growth.
The cost of selling SaaS can be pretty high. The median SaaS startup takes 11 months to make back the money spent acquiring a customer. In other words, you need your customers to be satisfied and willing to pay you for nearly a year. Otherwise, you’re losing money on every customer you acquire, which will cause your company to flame out.
“If you want to achieve sustainable growth, you have to keep your customers around for as long as possible”
That’s why I think it’s so important to have account or relationship managers on your sales team dedicated to building relationships with customers. It’s a difficult job, but an important one. By being a trusted partner to your customers, a good account manager supports your business in three ways:
Expansion: Growing accounts that are spending a low amount but have high potential.
Retention: Maintaining accounts that are spending a lot and are at the top for growth.
Contraction, i.e. monthly spend stability: Fighting to keep customer spend at the same level.
If you want to achieve sustainable growth, you have to keep your customers around for as long as possible. The plain truth of the matter is that companies built on recurring revenue can’t afford to treat customers like they’re disposable.
We all know the importance of measuring the quality of your interactions with your customers.
Asking for feedback from customers helps managers spot and reward star performers and identify opportunities to improve the quality of support their team provides. There are numerous industry standards for this – Customer Effort Score (CES), Customer Satisfaction (CSAT), Net Promoter Score (NPS), etc. At Intercom, we built what we call “conversation ratings”.
When working on this feature over two years ago, we wanted to design a solution that was in line with our mission, making internet business personal. Thus, while we explored options such as simple thumbs up/thumbs down designs and five-star satisfaction ratings, it was no surprise that we were really drawn to using an emoji scale, with a row of faces – 😠 🙁 😐 😃 😍 – representing a five-point scale from “Terrible” to “Amazing”. The prototype was well received by both our own teammates and end users.
Managers felt it allowed them to better understand how their customers felt, and end users felt it was modern and fun, and offered clarity around what they were being asked. While most feedback was positive, there were some customers who felt it was too expressive or not professional enough for their business.
However, after thoughtful consideration of the pros and cons of each solution, we decided to pursue the emojis as our mode of conversation rating. As we put it at the time, “Using emoji faces felt expressive, modern and in line with the Intercom messenger style.”
Why were people reluctant to send 😍?
Before we shipped the feature, we expected customers to ask to allow them to customize or change the emoji set altogether. Surprisingly, when we carried out the research a couple of months later, this was not a common request. However, we did discover that 30% of the conversations we analyzed included a request to kill 😍. As avid users of this emoji at Intercom, we were a little confused by the request.
As time went by, it became apparent why our customers wanted to change the heart eyes emoji specifically:
Nothing like missing out on perfect customer service scores because @intercom uses 😍, which most professionals find inappropriate.
Customers were apprehensive to click on 😍 for two main reasons:
They only used this emoji in communication with a romantic partner.
Males did not feel comfortable sending it to another male.
The explanation was clear – the heart eye emoji was perceived as being inappropriate or having romantic connotations, which is probably not what you want to suggest when rating a customer support interaction. Indeed, the great thing about emojis is that they are very expressive in a succinct manner.
“This reluctance to use the 😍 emoji resulted in customer support agents and teams getting lower ratings than their performance deserved”
What we did not realize when choosing the scale was that the usage and interpretation of certain emojis would differ so much across cultures and even gender. There are even models to infer gender based on usage of emojis.
This reluctance to use the 😍 emoji resulted in customer support agents and teams getting lower ratings than their performance deserved, largely because of a design decision rather than any fault of their own. This trend was also noticed by our internal customer support team.
From 😍 to 🤩
We knew we had to change this particular emoji and after careful deliberation, we decided 🤩 was the perfect alternative. It was differentiated enough from the other emojis in the scale to suggest very high satisfaction, while communicating less passion and more excitement. Both our own customer support team and customers were unanimous in their appreciation. As one Intercom user put it: “Thumbs up for changing the 😍 to a starry eyed face 👍. Some of our customers have said they would have rated maximum, but the lovely eyes were just too much 😂”.
Beyond the positive reaction, the results we saw were staggering.
Looking at Intercom’s own Customer Support team, we saw an 11% increase in the number of “Amazing” CSAT ratings, almost all of which came from customers shifting from 😃 to 🤩.
Even more impressive was what happened when you looked at just the males on the Customer Support team, as this group saw a 17% increase in the number of “Amazing” ratings when we moved from 😍 to 🤩. This increase was enough to close the small gap between the rates at which male and female customer support representatives received 🤩 and 😃 ratings. This had a real impact on people’s perceived performance.
What we have learned
In text-based communication, emojis can act as substitutes for our body language and facial expressions, and can be used to convey emotion and clarify a message’s meaning. It was fascinating to find such a clear example of how, just like nonverbal cues, the usage and interpretation of emojis changes across cultures and, furthermore, how someone’s choice of emoji can be dependent on the gender of the recipient.
Above all, though, whether it’s expressed with stars or hearts or smiles, we love enabling great customer support and the very real personal interactions that can occur with thoughtful design.
Karen received a BA in applied mathematics from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford. Eventually, she became Senior Vice President of Small Business at Intuit and is now COO of Intercom. She has always been very analytical, quantitative and results oriented. “That’s part of what I love doing at Intercom now, which is all about helping our customers grow, driving business growth,” she says.
“This was the product that I had needed in every single tech business I had ever run”
In her years at Intuit, Karen recalls how she found her love of driving business growth.
“For example, I started a business from zero and grew it to about $50 million in recurring revenue. I took another business, I took over at about $30 million revenue and was able to grow that to about $100 million. And then, there’s a third business that I was leading that I started at about $100 million. I was able to grow it to about $500 million in annual recurring revenue.”
How did Karen find out about Intercom?
The first time Karen saw and used Intercom was a “lightning bolt moment,” she says. “I looked at it and I realized immediately this was the product that I had needed in every single tech business I had ever run. I thought, oh my gosh, I have to be a part of this.”
“If you want to build a big business, start with a big problem”
Is there a framework for business success?
Firstly, you have to think about an important need that your customers have that isn’t being met. You also need to make sure that this need is big enough to warrant focusing your business on. “If you want to build a big business, start with a big problem. You’ve got a small problem, [then] small business,” Karen says.
Once you have that, you need to figure out how you and your ecosystem of partners can solve the need in a way that gives you a durable competitive advantage.
What has Karen learned from growing teams?
Having the right team and direct reports around you is really critical. When you are hiring, put people in the job as a part of your interview process. For example, if you’re hiring somebody to be a growth marketer, give them a take home assignment to figure out the first thing they would do to drive growth for the business. It’s good for you because you know what you’re getting and it’s good for them because they know the type of work you’re going to want them to do, Karen points out.
Reference checks are also important, especially when you are in the late stages of the hiring process. You should try to find a mutual connection or two between you and the candidate who can provide you with a confidential reference.
“Know that these references are only one or two data points, and importantly, make sure to respect that person’s confidentiality,” advises Karen. “Only do this late in the process, with a candidate who you want to hire instead of with twenty candidates.”
Is there a silver bullet when it comes to growth?
“If you step back and think about yourself as a customer, consider your favorite purchase experiences,” Karen suggests. “These experiences probably have a great atmosphere and a way to get you exactly what you want, fast.”
“You can be sure your competitors are doing this, even if you are not”
Interacting with your customers and prospects in real time is vital, and that’s something Intercom can help you do. “When someone is coming to your site, you want to be able to help them get exactly what they need while they’re thinking about it versus getting back to them when they’re no longer a hot lead,” she says. “This is the mainstream experience now, and you can be sure your competitors are doing this, even if you are not.”
Want more lessons on growing and scaling a company? Check out the book we wrote, The Growth Handbook:
How do you put a box around a product that defies categorization? How do you name an all-in-one solution for a plethora of problems, which – until now – have required individual tools?
It’s a nearly impossible task, but Shishir Mehrotra and his team at Coda have set out reimagine documents, spreadsheets, and apps in a way that undoes 40 years of blind fealty to Microsoft Office and its predecessors. Coda’s purpose: prove that docs can be as powerful as apps – and provide an elegant solution to the problems of 2020, not 1980.
If there’s one person who can pull off such a reinvention of the wheel, it’s Mehrotra. He’s an MIT graduate and a veteran of Microsoft, Google, and YouTube. He joined me for a conversation that ranged from how to identify your simplest thesis to why a long stealth mode was important to Coda.
Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:
Identifying your simple thesis is paramount. At Intercom, it’s that businesses should be able to talk to their users as humans. Gmail’s is that you should never have to delete email. It might be hard to distill, but it’s essential and you have to be willing to be misunderstood until you can prove it to the world.
Coda is run on two observations: the world runs on docs, not apps, and those docs haven’t changed in 40 years. So what if they started from scratch and created a new set of building blocks that ignore the past?
Three major changes in the past decade have changed the tech landscape: the evolution and maturity of the web browser, the use of SaaS tools in the workplace, and the opening up of APIs to the broader public.
Instead of just buying solutions, people now expect to be able to make them on their own. This is part of what Shishir calls the maker generation, and Coda is trying to give them the building blocks to do so.
Timing has been everything from Coda. Instead of going through the hypergrowth Shishir experienced during his time at YouTube, Coda stayed in stealth mode for three years to make sure they could truly deliver a mobile experience that truly offered docs that were as powerful as apps.
If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
Matt: Our guest for today’s show is Shishir Mehrotra, the CEO of Coda, a new type of doc. For the sake of our listeners, could you give us a rundown of your career to date?
Shishir: Let’s see. I went to MIT, out in Massachusetts, a long time ago. I started my first company, which was called Centrata. And then I spent six years at Microsoft. I worked on Office, then Windows, then SQL Server. Then I moved back to the Bay Area and joined Google. I spent about six years there – mostly running YouTube products. Then I left Google in 2014 to start Coda.
Matt: Incredibly impressive. How has that transition been for you, going from the giant company that is Google back to the early-stage startup that is Coda?
Shishir: There are parts that are incredibly different and parts that are very similar. I love some of the lessons you learn at some of these bigger places. Your ability to carry them forward and re-implement them in your own environment and take the best parts of each one is always fun. If I had to pick what’s most different, it was the returning to being a maker. I went from most of my day being watching other people do things, being in meetings and reviews and so on, to all of a sudden writing specs, doing designs and trying to figure out what the product was. It’s this creative outlet that is infectious once you start doing it again.
“We’re really building on our original promise that you can build a doc as powerful as an app”
Matt: It’s always fun, being able to roll up your sleeves and do that type of work again. Coda’s been in beta for about a year now, and – exciting news – you just released Coda 1.0. Congrats.
Shishir: Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a big leap for us. It came out of beta launch, and now it’s generally available and anyone can try it. The most important piece of launch is a brand-new mobile experience, which is pretty awesome. But really for me, the milestone for Coda 1.0 is that for the first time, we’re really building on our original promise that you can build a doc as powerful as an app, and we’re really excited about that.
Identifying your simple thesis
Matt: Yeah, it’s fantastic. We’re big, big fans and users of Coda here at Intercom, so I’m keen to hear more about what you guys are shipping and what’s coming next. But first, let’s talk a little bit more about how Coda came to be. You joined YouTube back in 2008, and you helped guide the company through hypergrowth after its acquisition by Google. During that time, what were some of the biggest lessons that you learned scaling the product organization?
Shishir: If I had to pick one to latch onto, it’s this idea that I think most great businesses have a really, really simple thesis, and that that thesis can seem pretty crazy at first. There are lots of examples in the industry. Amazon has this really clear perspective that the world needs a universal online retailer. The way I think about Intercom’s thesis is that businesses should be able to talk to their users as humans. The Gmail one was pretty sharp: Basically, you should never have to delete email.
But some of these are sometimes hard to see. When I got to YouTube in 2008, we had amazing growth in lots of different ways. But it took us a little while for us to be able to articulate our unique thesis clearly. The YouTube thesis is that online video is going to do to cable what cable did to broadcast and that we’re going to go from 3 channels to 300 channels to 3 million channels.
“Identifying your thesis is hard, but you have to deliver it, you have to execute it, and you have to be completely willing for it to be misunderstood for a long period of time until”
Interestingly, the first time I made that statement (“Online video’s going to do to cable what cable did to broadcast”), I had talked at this conference in New York in 2009, and I almost got laughed out of the room. Just to put it in context, at the time, YouTube’s competitors, so to speak, were a company called Flickr and another company called MySpace. The audience looked at it and said: “This just sounds ridiculous. The guy’s up there talking about YouTube in the context of cable, but what does YouTube have to do with ESPN and Disney and all these cable channels?”
It’s something we strongly believed and really needed, too, and it probably took four years before people started repeating that line. Nowadays when I say it, people just nod their head like it’s obvious. Online video’s going to do to cable what cable did to broadcast. But if I had to pick a lesson out of that period, it’s that identifying your thesis is hard, but you have to deliver it, you have to execute it, and you have to be completely willing for it to be misunderstood for a long period of time until you can really prove it to the world. So I think that was probably my main YouTube lesson.
Matt: To prove your point, I heard a fascinating story recently from a good friend of mine who spent Christmas with his family in Australia. None of his young nephews and nieces watch TV. They watch YouTube. And they only watch YouTube artists, which I found fascinating. It’s incredible to see how that landscape is changing. It’s hard to appreciate now with hindsight, but the press thought Google had made a mistake when they acquired YouTube back all those years ago. YouTube, of course, looks very different 10 years on. Were you always convinced that it would be the success that it is today?
Shishir: Always convinced. I think that’s strong. I had pretty high hopes, but it took a while before I had real confidence. First off, your recollection of that period is definitely accurate. When I showed up in 2008, YouTube was basically seen as a big mistake. It was losing tons of money. It had these grainy videos; it had these big lawsuits. My mom would forward me that said YouTube was Google’s first big mistake and asking me what I was thinking. We had confidence in our thesis, and we could see how it was working, but I find that usually your confidence in business doesn’t come out of some framework. It comes out of some experience.
My confidence in YouTube was pretty formed around a pretty formative story. I had this experience with this guy Sal Khan. Sal now runs a thing called Khan Academy. But at the time, he was at a hedge fund, and he and I had gone to college together. We have very similar paths – we both married our college sweethearts, and both our wives are physicians – so we stayed in touch. He was over for dinner. This was 2008. He’s over for dinner, and I tell him I had just joined YouTube. “Oh, I’m on YouTube,” he tells me. And I say, “That’s wonderful, do you have any feedback?” And he says: “No, I don’t think you understand. I create on YouTube. I publish on YouTube.” And he tells me the story. For listeners who may not know, his quick version of the story is that he had a cousin in Louisiana who needed help with her math homework, but they could never find the time to be on Skype at the same time. So he told her: “Just send me your problems. I’ll solve them, record myself, and send them back to you.” At the time, the most efficient way to send video over the internet was YouTube. So we were an email attachment service for him, and it turned out that he left the public setting on, so people were watching the videos.
As he was telling the story, I didn’t really think much of it, but I went to work the next day and looked at his stats and compared them to the stats of all the education channels. Remember, Stanford and MIT had both committed at the time to put all their lectures online, so YouTube was full of great lectures. I immediately emailed Sal and told him: “I don’t think you know this, but your viewership is more than Stanford and MIT combined. You have to join the YouTube partner program.”
At the time, you had to get invited to be part of the partner program and make money on YouTube. So he joins, and fast forward a few months, and we have him over for dinner again. I ask him how it’s going, and he says, “It’s going great, thanks for getting me in the partner program.” Then he pulls me aside a bit and tells me he’s been looking at these checks coming in from YouTube every month. And he’s a mathematician, so he’s been extrapolating a little bit. He says: “I can see when this is going to pay for rent. And I can see a little bit further down the road it’s going to surpass my hedge fund salary.” Then he looks at me and he asks the question: “What do you think? Should I quit my job and do this full-time?”
His wife is giving me this dead stare to answer correctly, but I ignored her and said, “Look, I can’t promise anything, but I’m betting my career on it, and I think we have a real good shot at it.” I told him what our thesis was, and that if he made the choice, I’d support him. I’m sure he asked the same question to a thousand different people, so my advice is probably just a small piece of it. But think about the thesis that online video is going to do to cable what cable did to broadcast – and picture Sal, even five years earlier, pitching a show to PBS.
They might have asked, “What’s your education background, and what do you teach?”
Sal: “No, I don’t teach. I’m a hedge fund guy.”
PBS: “So what’s your media background? Have you ever done anything in content?”
Sal: “No, I’ve never done anything.”
PBS: “Okay. What’s your idea?”
Sal: “Well, I’m going to start with the first problem in the algebra book, and I’m going to solve it. Then I’ll solve the second problem and the third problem and work my way up all the way up to the end of the algebra book. Then I’ll do the next book. And by the way, I’m never going to show my face in the video. There are no characters. There’s no music, no theme song.”
Matt: It already sounds crazy.
Shishir: That’s it, right? He would’ve gotten laughed out of the room. And instead, because he didn’t have to ask anybody, he got this ability to show off his talents. So when I go back and think about moments where this thesis went from being a theory that you could see in a paper to being real, it’s because I watched this guy who clearly in the previous world had no shot. That was probably the first big moment for me.
Matt: That’s a fascinating story. Isn’t it funny how some of the most successful outcomes start off as mistakes? By leaving his video…
Shishir: Yeah, leaving it public. Right, exactly.
How Coda eliminates pain points
Introducing Coda 1.0 - YouTube
Matt: Let’s shift gears a little bit. When you were working at YouTube during that period of hypergrowth, were there any specific ways of collaborating or working as a team that created the pain points that inspired you to found Coda?
Shishir: Yeah, definitely. The way we used YouTube internally was one of the big inspirations for Coda, and it reflected an observation I had for a long time. As context, YouTube was brought into Google, but it was really a pretty separate company. We had a separate office, we had a separate brand, and so we had some freedom to try our own techniques. We obviously borrowed the best of what we could from Google, but we also adjusted when we wanted to and did things a little bit differently.
When I talk about the history of Coda, I generally talk about two observations that drive Coda. The first one is that we think the world runs on docs, not apps. This was something that was very true at YouTube. There are a bunch of examples. Google uses a system for goal-setting called OKRs. It’s pretty popular, and it’s used by a lot of other companies now. But there’s a particular way of doing it and a tool set for doing it that didn’t really work for YouTube. We were shipping this mobile app that had to go on a certain cycle, so we needed to set goals a little bit differently. We did our process. What did we build it in? We built it in Google Sheets, because it was the most obvious thing to use.
“We think the world runs on docs, not apps”
Another example was the performance-review process at Google had a particular set of values. I had this crazy theory around doing level-independent performance management, so we did that in a completely different way with a big network of spreadsheets.
One of my favorite examples is if you hit flag on a YouTube video back in 2008 or 2009, it would create a row in a spreadsheet on an ops person’s desk. Some people saw this as crazy. I saw this as our strategic strength. Because it was our system, we could be nimble in how we planned. We could adjust our performance system, adjust how we thought about our different workflows, and do it the way we wanted. All of it was done in Docs and Sheets.
So when we were thinking about starting Coda, this observation was pretty core. When I looked around, I saw the same pattern everywhere. We’d ask a team, “What tools do you use at work?” And they would name a bunch of software, but they’d use Docs and Sheets to do just about everything. And that really was crucial to this observation: the world runs on docs, not apps.
“Docs haven’t changed in 40 years”
Matt: It’s interesting that everyone wants to adopt these standards or these frameworks and these ways of working, OKRs being a prime example. But you need to be able to adjust and tinker and tweak it a little bit to make it work just for you.
We’ve talked a lot about docs and spreadsheets. I bet you probably already know this, but 2019 is actually the 30-year anniversary of Microsoft Office. And it’s in the DNA of just about every productivity app and suite, including Google’s own G Suite. Given the approach that you guys have taken at Coda and everything that you’ve learned along the way, what limitations do you see with that office model?
Shishir: That’s an interesting frame for it, the DNA frame. I’d say the core metaphors actually go back even further, because the set of tools before Office itself also shared a lot of those same similarities. We have this joke we use at work, which is that if Austin Powers were to pop out of his freezing chamber, he wouldn’t know what clothes to wear or what music to listen to, but he would absolutely know how to work a document and spreadsheet in a presentation, because they haven’t changed since the ’70s. What does it mean to be a document, and how do pages get structured, and what do slides look like? If you think about spreadsheets – even concepts like A1, B2, C3 (we call that Battleship) – they’ve lasted 40 years.
“What if we started from scratch and started with a new set of building blocks and ignored the past?”
It’s a little bit nuts that in that period of time, every other piece of software is completely different. You think about operating systems. We went from DOS to Android. You think about things like databases or search engines or social networks or messaging tools. Everything is completely different, and yet there’s this thing we use all day long. We use it to run our teams, our families, our businesses, and that thing is stuck in the Austin Powers past. And it’s really pretty critical to the Coda view of the world. If the first observation is that the world runs on docs, not apps, the second one is that those docs haven’t changed in 40 years. So, what if we started from scratch and started with a new set of building blocks and ignored the past? What would we build? It’s probably worth mentioning that it’s super risky to do this. I get asked all the time: “It’s been that way for 40 years. Doesn’t that mean it’s really good? Why bother changing it?”
Matt: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Shishir: Yeah, exactly. It’s been there for 40 years and people are very used to it, so we have to be really careful. And if you try to change something like that, you can easily overshoot. So we try really hard to be familiar when appropriate – and adjust when appropriate. But we felt pretty strongly that the time was right to build a new type of doc and reimagine from the ground up.
Breaking through behaviors
“There’s an expectation now that users can design their own experiences”
Matt: Yeah, and I think to your point, one of the hardest challenges about changing someone’s use of something that’s been around for such a long time is that people don’t like change. And making that change and shift in behavior is incredibly hard. But I think you guys are doing a tremendous job. You’ve observed that these documentation and spreadsheet tools haven’t changed for the last 40 years, but on the flip side, we’re seeing more and more workers bringing their own favorite apps to the workplace. Even with that happening, we still see people reverting back to docs and spreadsheets. Why is that the case?
Shishir: There’s a phrase I use for this phenomenon. I call it “the maker generation,” and I actually think you could go back for a moment to where we started this discussion with YouTube, and I think this maker generation thing is happening across industries. If you think about YouTube, we spent a long time explaining and evangelizing that anyone in the world was capable of being a video creator: that you didn’t have to move to LA and pass some Hollywood test in order to be the next Sal Khan. That happened in video, but it actually happened in many industries. If you look at what Etsy did for people who can build crafts and products – or if you look at the gaming industry and what people are doing these days in Minecraft and Fortnite – there’s this expectation now that users can design their own experiences.
An idea every industry is embracing slowly, is that their communities aren’t just users of their products, they are actually makers and contributors to that product. So in some ways, what we’re seeing in software is just the next phase of that. The way I look at software is that it has gone through its own generations. At first, software was built by hobbyists. If you go back, there were the days of the Homebrew Computing Club with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates and so on – and everybody just took their tools and built what they needed. Then there was this big right turn, and we had this phase of these large mega-application companies and the SAPs of the world. You would get one big thing deployed for a whole company, and it would solve all problems, and you were forced to use it, as you described it.
Then there’s this phase that started, I think in the early 2000s, with an explosion of apps. In the business world, that was mostly enabled by SaaS, by these software as a service companies, and the user behavior changed. Now all of a sudden if you had a problem and you’re some manager of a team, you had a problem, you could take your credit card and you could go buy a solution to your problem. You didn’t necessarily have to ask IT, and you had thousands of things to pick from, and you could buy what you needed. In the consumer world, the same thing happened with all the app stores. There are now tons of different things to go buy.
But in this next phase, I think we’re entering software’s version of the maker generation, and I think people don’t expect just to buy things anymore. They expect to be able to make them themselves. Obviously, Coda’s betting super heavily on this, much like YouTube bet on the same movement in the video space. I think there will be similar levels of people who think it’s a little bit crazy, which is fine with us. But I think it’s really inspiring, because when you hand people the ability to solve their own problems, they do a much better job. And I think we’re going to see – similar to what YouTube saw in video –this explosion of creativity as people take these tools and solve problems in ways that nobody really expected. I think that’s really exciting.
Today, we’re launching our app for the Microsoft Outlook calendar, which makes it easier than ever to book meetings with leads and customers, so you can sell more, faster.
Sales meetings are a critical step in your sales funnel, whether you’re focused on closing deals with qualified leads and target accounts or increasing revenue from existing customers. With the Intercom app for the Outlook calendar, you can schedule sales meetings automatically – reducing friction in your funnel, limiting chances for drop off and accelerating your sales cycle.
You can send the app in chat conversations, so your leads and customers can book meetings into your Outlook calendar, right from the Intercom Messenger. Or, you can use chatbots to automatically schedule meetings with qualified leads when they’re live on your website and ready to buy.
The app also allows you to create a personalized and customizable public link for your calendar that you can add to your Intercom profile, your email signature or anywhere you wish. By eliminating the back-and-forth coordination, the app enables you to focus on selling, not scheduling.
As a product-first company, new product launches are a core part of Intercom’s DNA – which means there’s always an abundance of juicy launches for us product marketers to work on.
Given our cadence of launches and updates, we’ve developed a pretty well-oiled launch machine over the past few years. Yet, as we’ve grown, we’re having to evolve our approach to deal with new challenges:
We’re shipping more than ever – both smaller updates and big, high-impact features and products.
Our go-to-market teams have grown immensely, meaning more specialists and larger cross-collaborative teams for each launch.
We’ve expanded our product offering and the customers we target, meaning we’re marketing to new and more varied audiences.
The problem with the “old way”
We’ve talked in the past about our rubric for launches. It’s a simple framework for defining the tier of a launch where P1 refers to the biggest launches, P4 refers to small updates or improvements and P2 and P3 cover everything in between. These tiers helped to define what activities we’d do around launches and this could include everything from updating the changelog to posting on social media, creating video content and more.
Initially, this was a very successful framework for us. It helped us set expectations about the “size” of a launch and made sure we were prioritizing the highest impact announcements rather than inundating our customers with updates. It also served as a good checklist for Product Marketing Managers (PMMs) – especially those new to the team – to help them understand what was needed for each launch.
In addition to the list, each time we’d try a new tactic or two. This could be something small, like a new type of display ad or a new video style for LinkedIn, or something bigger, like a live launch announcement. These then ended up becoming part of the de-facto list of launch activities, so the list began to grow.
“We found ourselves falling into a trap of ever-bigger ‘cookie cutter’ launches”
You can probably tell where this is going. As we grew, we found ourselves falling into a trap of ever-bigger “cookie cutter” launches. Not only had product launches become a Herculean task, we’d lost sight of why we were doing particular activities. Don’t get me wrong, these launches were generally successful – but we didn’t know why or which activities were having the most impact. That meant we were spending time and energy on less-impactful activities at the expense of higher-impact ones, as well as struggling to show how our efforts tied into our higher-level marketing goals.
Clearly, this wasn’t sustainable. Nor did it align with how we’d started to think about our target audiences and goals. Following a significant project to better define our target customer segments, we now have clear, differentiated goals for each of those segments – as well as a deeper understanding of each segment’s needs and behaviors – to align our marketing strategy and activities around.
3 tips for a successful product launch plan
So, over the past few quarters, we have taken a step back to rethink how we do launches. We’re still reworking our framework and recognize that it will never be “done’” per se, but here are three tips based on what we’ve learned so far:
1. Prioritize based on impact
The first part of the framework that you should tackle is the rubric to determine the tier and the amount of resources you need to put into a launch. The aim is to focus more on the business impact of a new feature or product, so you have a better idea of the return on any resources put into marketing it.
You should start by asking yourselves some questions to understand the impact. Some of the questions we have asked ourselves are:
Will it help us grow revenue? If so, how – net new, expansion or cross-sell?
Will it increase engagement with our products, and therefore reduce churn?
Is it a differentiator for us or something innovative in the market?
How big is the audience? What percentage of our customers is it relevant to?
Based on these responses, the launch gets a score, which translates into a tier (1-4). We’ve built this as a nifty little automated “app” in Coda, but you could do it manually too. Features or products that land in Tier 1 are those we expect to be most impactful and generally are going to be tied to a direct revenue goal. Those in Tier 4 tend to be smaller updates or improvements that are relevant to a subset of our customers.
Tier 1 announcements are naturally going to get more resources and budget than Tier 4 ones. But before you start to think about which specific activities you’re going to do for the launch, your next step should be to get alignment on the broader goal of the launch, again using the answers to the above questions.
Here are some examples of high level goals to consider during the pre-launch process, but you may have other goals, such as entering a new market or re-engaging lost customers:
Net new revenue (new customers)
Expansion revenue (existing customers)
Feature/product adoption (usage)
Once you have your goal, you can start planning launch activities, remembering that different activities suit different goals and avoiding the “cookie cutter” trap! For example, if the launch goal is to attract net new revenue – because this new feature means you can now sell to a new market or maybe it will unblock upmarket deals – you’re likely going to want to focus on reaching those new prospects through things like ads, influencer marketing and content.
On the other hand, if a launch is unlikely to attract new customers on its own but has a big opportunity for increasing engagement among your existing customers, spending a ton on ads that send traffic to landing pages isn’t going to be that effective. In this case, customer message campaigns, webinars and help content will be more effective.
2. Bundle features for stronger announcements
If you’re in a fast-growth product company, it’s likely that your R&D team is shipping regularly and, of course, you’ll want to let your customers know about all these great new features. But at some point you risk overwhelming and annoying your customers, and they may start ignoring your announcements altogether.
By bundling related features into one announcement with a specific theme, you can not only avoid this over-communication, but also tell a much stronger, more cohesive story.
“One-size-fits-all messaging doesn’t cut it anymore”
Here’s a recent example from us about updating two of our apps and releasing a new calendar feature. We bundled these into one announcement about making it easy to book calls and demos, so you can focus on selling rather than scheduling, as they all help with this goal. By doing this, we have a stronger story than one of these features on their own.
This approach only works if the things you’re bundling actually make sense together, so be thoughtful about your bundles. Here are some tips for effective bundling:
Don’t just bundle a random bunch of features together for the sake of it if there is no cohesive story. Bundle features that fit within a theme, whether that’s a specific outcome, use case or workflow, etc.
If one feature in the bundle is more impactful than others, consider leading with that as the headline and mentioning the others as secondary parts of the announcement.
Don’t bundle too many features together. This can result in some of them getting lost and your customers feeling overwhelmed.
Make sure the features in the bundle are coming around the same time. It’s fine for some things to be already released and others to be coming soon as long as it isn’t months before or after your announcement. This requires a good level of confidence in shipping dates so you should get your product team on board with this approach so they understand the benefits and the potential impact of bad estimates.
3. Get super targeted with your messaging
We’re big believers in “right message at the right time”, which means messaging only when it’s relevant and useful. This is especially important if your product is used for different use cases or by different types of customers.
Of course, using our own product helps us with this immensely, but as our audience has grown and become more diverse, targeting is more important than ever. Our solutions serve multiple teams – sales, marketing and support – in a wide range of company types and sizes, each with different goals, pain points and use cases. This means that one-size-fits-all messaging doesn’t cut it anymore.
So how do you handle messaging when your customers are so varied? One way that we have managed this is by honing in on one specific segment of our audience and targeting just that segment with the relevant announcement. Other times, it might mean announcing the same feature to multiple audiences, but with different messaging for each. For example, our Answer Bot is useful for both sales and support teams, but for slightly different goals, so when we launched, we tailored the messaging for each audience.
“Get over the fear of missing out on a wider audience and identify the best channels for reaching your target audience”
This requires some discipline and getting over the fear of “missing out” on a wider audience, but we have found that you get much better results this way and you avoid falling into the trap of bothering other customers with things they don’t care about.
As well as tailoring the messaging, you should also try to identify the best channels for reaching your target audience, rather than just announcing on them all and hoping for the best. For example, there’s traditionally a strong “founder” audience on Product Hunt, whereas sales leaders are more likely to be on LinkedIn or GrowthHackers. Establishing this prior to launching will help you focus your resources and avoid alienating audiences with mismatched messaging.
Switch it up
Hopefully these tips help you evolve your own launch processes to plan more effective announcements. For us, the evolution never ends and we’re always looking for new ways to improve what we do. We would love to hear how you find these tips if you try them out, or if you have your own tips to share!
Developing a sales strategy is one of the core activities every business will have to undertake. You can delay it until you’ve acquired your first 100 or 1,000 customers, but at some point you’ll need to find sustainable traction in the market.
A well defined sales strategy is your path to meaningful, sustainable growth. Get it right and watch your company’s growth trajectory go up and to the right. Go without one and risk seeing your business flame out.
When done correctly, your sales strategy will help your sales team execute with focus – SMB or enterprise, inbound or outbound, hunting or farming. The key to to experiment and iterate on it with discipline, so you can zero in on the one that’s right for your business.
To help get you started, we’ve curated advice from industry leaders at and outside of Intercom. They share their winning sales strategies and the lessons they’ve learned scaling sales.
Put simply, your sales strategy is how you’ll drive revenue. It’s your company’s competitive advantages codified into an actionable plan for acquiring new customers and growing existing ones. Whether your sales team is five or 500 people, a well formulated sales strategy is crucial to being able to close deals quickly and predictably.
“Put simply, your sales strategy is how you’ll drive revenue”
Generally your sales strategy will include things like your target market, ideal customer profile, go-to-market positioning, sales motions, methodology and channels. Keep in mind, as your business matures from startup to scale-up, your sales strategy will need to evolve too.
1. Understand what it takes to attract your target customer
Des Traynor, Co-Founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Intercom
Regardless of whether you’re selling a SaaS service or a physical good, you need to understand what it takes to attract your target customers and decide how much revenue you want to earn from them. That gives you the ability to plot how you’ll reach those customers, which gives you three options: These axes were created by Joel York to define the three key sales models for SaaS businesses and are a great way to help you understand how to move forward. (The bottom-right quadrant, a complex sales process with low value customers, isn’t a viable business, so it’s not even worth considering.)
Many startups, when using this model to define themselves, end up in the bottom-left quadrant because it’s the easiest one to scale in. The problem is that being in the lower left means you usually end up with a high amount of low value customers. This limits how you can acquire customers. Spending $300 to acquire customers for a $99 product isn’t economical.
So depending on what industry you’re in, picking the wrong quadrant could leave you dead before you even start building anything at all. Here are some examples:
Some industries are notoriously hard to reach, e.g. content marketing isn’t as effective for dentists as it is for developers. This means you might need to pay to acquire customers.
Some industries deal in annual contracts, NDAs and SLAs. This means you need to invest in a sales process.
Some industries are used to PowerPoint sales presentations, handheld onboarding and onsite training. This means you need a high contract value to profit on a customer.
Evaluating if you’re able to offer a self-serve experience or a complex sales process and then determining if there’s a high or low value for each user helps you decide how you should approach the customer.
Excerpt from Intercom on Starting Up.
2. Know when to add sales to a self-serve business model
John Barrows, Sales Trainer
If you’re selling something that has a super low Average Contract Value (ACV), say, $1,000 for the year, it’s hard to justify having sales in that equation whatsoever. But, if you’re in somewhat of a complex sale that involves a sales cycle longer than 20-30 days, and at least two or three calls with multiple people, sales is a critical part of that to make sure it goes right.
“You can only automate and educate people so much before they want to talk to somebody”
You can only automate and educate people so much before they want to talk to somebody. Maybe $5,000-$10,000 is when people get more uncomfortable putting their credit card online and buying without talking to people. But that threshold exists.
As heard on the Inside Intercom podcast.
3. Establish clear, differentiated roles on your sales team
LB Harvey, SVP of Sales, Intercom
One of my guiding principles as a sales leader is focus breeds excellence. Sales reps, especially new ones, struggle to be fabulous at multiple sales motions. That means when you’re formulating your sales strategy, you need to be explicit about creating the right, differentiated roles on your sales team and ensuring you’re incentivizing and prioritizing the right motions within those roles.
Let’s take inbound sales and outbound sales, for example. Inbound and outbound require vastly different skills and workflows. The managers on an inbound team need to be obsessed with analyzing top-of-the-funnel trends – the marketing channels bringing in high quality leads – and increasing the conversion rate from lead to opportunity with tactics like live chat. Managers on an outbound team, on the other hand, need to be able to get sales reps gunning to go out and evangelize the product’s amazing benefits for customers. The point is they’re different teams, different reps, different motions.
Whichever model you choose, it’s important for you go into it with personal conviction. Every model has its strengths and its weaknesses. Your job as a sales leader is to lean into its upsides.
4. Define your ideal customer profile
Tomasz Tunguz, Partner, Redpoint Ventures
The Ideal Customer Profile. The perfect customer. Can you describe it for your startup? The more precisely you can describe it, the better. That will simplify disqualification. But articulating the ICP well isn’t enough.
Vague ICPs are problematic. The company will focus on too broad a customer base, waste time and effort with unqualified prospects and blunt their sales pitch with irrelevant value propositions.
Clear ICPs can also be problematic. A clear but useless ICP might be: a disenchanted thirtysomething mechanic who likes to play German board games, read Nietzsche and watch MMA. I can clearly articulate my ICP to myself and others. The target market is clear (and niche!)
But how would I identify this person if I’m looking to sell to him? Where would I begin generating leads? Mechanics meetups? Board game conventions? Nihilist forums?
“To grow, startups must scale and distribute Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) identification from one to ten to hundreds of people”
A good ICP must serve three purposes. First, the ICP should enable me to identify a good prospect quickly. Second, I should be able to simply convey the ICP to someone else in such a way that they can find other ICPs. Third, the ICP should be defined so systems can be built to identify them.
A better ICP is: VPs of Marketing in GDPR-affected regions; or heads of sales with teams larger than 50 people in technology; CEOs of profitable pool supply companies.
These ICPs are much easier to identify using lead generation tools. They can be communicated to teammates simply and computer systems can be tooled or trained to identify them at scale.
5. Act like a consultant and advisor to your prospects
Mark Roberge, Senior Lecturer, Harvard Business School, and former Chief Revenue Officer, Hubspot
When folks ask, “What’s changing in sales; how is it different?” the common theme is that it’s going more and more inside. Twenty years ago, you had to actually talk to a salesperson just to do your buying process. They had information that you needed, and the best reps were very skilled at withholding that information in exchange for the information they wanted from you – who’s the decision maker? How much budget do you have? What are your needs?
But today, I can be in my slippers on Saturday night, after I put the kids to bed, and I can find the top five vendors in a space. I can find out what they do, how are they different from one another, and how much they cost. I can try many of the products for free, and I can buy many of them right on the site. Why we need sales becomes a huge question, right?
“We need to do a better job, when we engage with someone, to engage with them in their context”
Those of us in sales have to step up our game in order to add value to that whole ecosystem. We need to be there as consultants and advisers to our buyers. We need to do a better job, when we engage with someone, to engage with them in their context. We need to do a better job understanding their specific goals and the specific challenges they’re trying to solve, and translating the generic marketing on our website to their business. We need to tell the story from their perspective. That’s the skill the best reps now possess.
Excerpt from “Hubspot’s Mark Roberge Talks Inbound vs. Outbound Sales, Transparency and Big Data.”
6. Be deliberate when moving upmarket
Joel York, CMO, Accellion
As a SaaS startup evolves into a mature SaaS business, growth aspirations naturally lead to the desire to expand market reach to new prospects and to expand product footprint with current customers. The SaaS startup that enters the market with a customer self-service SaaS sales model represents the origin of a natural evolutionary path.
The theory is straightforward. The nimble SaaS startup that has built a large self-service customer franchise for a super simple product starts pumping in new features, develops modular pricing schemes, adds a few sales reps and sets off on a quest to increase its average selling price from $10 of monthly recurring revenue to $100 MRR to $1,000 MRR to $10,000 MRR and beyond! However, the straightforward tactics belie the tectonic strategic, operational and cultural shifts required for success. Underlying the simplicity of the customer self-service model is a mass market, low cost competitive strategy. Meanwhile, the enterprise sales model assumes a highly differentiated product, usually characterized by cutting edge Internet-enabled innovation.
Maintaining the simplicity of the customer self-service model as a successful SaaS startup introduces more complex products and purchase processes in close proximity to the originally simple, self-service product and purchase process requires careful planning and execution. Should the products be separate offerings or modules of a single offering? Should transactional sales arise by skimming the cream of customer self-service prospects, or should entirely new lead generation vehicles be put in place? Are enterprise customers just transactional customers who are all grown up, or an entirely different species?
7. Experiment with your sales strategy – before you pivot
Elizabeth Cain, Partner, Venture OpenView Partners
Sometimes a sales leader, or founder or even CEO gets too excited by too many new ideas. Every new idea is a GREAT idea that he or she wants the entire company to chase. Moving too quickly, all in different directions, and pivoting regularly creates confusion – you hamper your own progress. The most common risk I see? Moving to enterprise. Companies close one or two enterprise customers and get big deal fever. They pivot their entire business strategy and point the outbound team at ONLY enterprise meetings.
A culture of experimentation needs to be established at the top and pushed down into an organization. It takes guts to test things, fail and go again. Leadership teams need to create room for this and encourage creativity without repercussions.
So how do you actually run a disciplined experiment? It starts with a hypothesis – what are you here to test? Then you need to identify the different factors, design a process, agree to a timeline and be crystal clear on the metrics you will track to determine if it worked. After you run the experiment, you need to be rigorous in your review. If it worked, the next step is to figure out how to cap out this option – how far can it scale?
8. Use channel partners to accelerate growth, not create it
Steli Efti, CEO, Close.io
First, let’s get the basics out of the way: If you’re trying to get your first 10 or 100 customers, resellers and sales channel partnerships aren’t the right channels for you.
If you’ve only just built a minimum viable product that you’re trying to sell so you can learn from real customers, these aren’t the right channels for you.
If you don’t have a steady and stable stream of customers and monthly income coming in, these aren’t the right channels for you.
Resellers and sales channel partners are strategies to accelerate and speed up existing growth, not to create it from scratch.
They are only good at selling something that already works. Their incentive is to keep their clients happy and make money. And if your product doesn’t help them do that – if you can’t prove that your product brings tremendous value to its users – then they’re not going to put in the effort.
However, if you’re six months to a year in; have a product that already has traction and growth; have experimented with and found success with content marketing, paid ads, and inbound and outbound sales; and are bringing in hundreds of thousands or millions in revenue, then it’s a different story.
You want to only engage with them when the time is right and you’re ready for that type of scale. Never before.