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You can spend months working on a great idea, pour tons of time and energy into crafting the perfect marketing, but without customers your business will cease to exist. All future growth hinges on one thing – customer acquisition.
While this may sound simple, it can be incredibly challenging to find new opportunities for growth and customer acquisition in an increasingly crowded marketplace. There are a billion emails sent every day by MailChimp alone. There are over two million blog posts published each day. In today’s world, you’ll only win by acquiring customers in a way that differentiates you from the crowd and builds an enthusiastic customer base that sticks around.
To help you understand and improve your customer acquisition, we asked SaaS leaders within and outside of Intercom to reveal their top customer acquisition tactics. Hopefully this will give you some ideas on how to build sustainable growth for your business.
Mobilize your influencers to drive customer acquisition
When it comes to getting the word out about your product, ask yourself, “Who do my customers and prospects turn to for advice when they are looking to learn about great solutions or make a buying decision?” Understand who influences your prospects most, then earn the trust of those influencers. You’ll need to win both their hearts and their minds.
Before I joined Intercom, I led all of Intuit’s small-business products and services, including QuickBooks accounting, payroll and payments. For accounting and payroll products, the No. 1 influencer for a buyer was the accountant. Makes sense, right? When small businesses make decisions around accounting and payroll, they end up talking to an accountant roughly half of the time. So, we focused on being great for accountants – winning their hearts and minds to help drive word of mouth.
Once you find the folks who are trusted advisers to your customers and prospects, you need to help them do four things. In order, they need to know, use, love and recommend your products or services.
Know: They can’t recommend your solution if they don’t know about it.
Use: To build their confidence, they have to actually use and understand your product.
Love: Figuring out what matters most to those folks is crucial. Make sure that they’re experiencing real value and that they see the value your product will provide for others. This is also about giving them an experience that is emotionally engaging, wins their hearts (not just their minds) and gets them excited.
Recommend: Find ways to help influencers amplify this love. Make it easy and rewarding for them to recommend your product. You can use things like referral fees to align your business interests. At Intuit, we built capabilities into our products that made accountants’ lives easier when their clients used QuickBooks, so they were motivated to get more folks using our products. How can you motivate your influencers to get more folks using your product or service?
– Karen Peacock, COO, Intercom
Don’t trade growth for profitability
There’s a silly old business expression that says: “We’re going to lose a dollar on every deal, but we’ll make it up in volume.” It is also an extremely common way that venture-funded businesses think about how to grow. They think they can burn through tons of capital acquiring users and figure out monetization later. But no matter how much volume you have, if you don’t make money on any of the transactions, you won’t make money at all.
If you look at many of the initially successful companies that have come and gone over the past 36 months, that’s exactly what they were doing. These companies had incredibly smart and experienced people, but the underlying business model was broken: They were creating volume businesses without a clear-enough plan for how to solve the profitability question. For a viable business, the value of the customer must exceed the cost of acquiring that customer. You don’t need to have this solved on day one of your business, but you need to have a plan as to how that’s going to happen.
– Brian Kotlyar, Director of Demand Generation, Intercom
Can you invest in customer acquisition too early?
You can definitely invest in acquisition too early. Unfortunately, at my first SaaS endeavor contentmarketer.io, which has pivoted to Mailshake, we made that exact mistake.
If you don’t have a product that can fit that channel, then I would recommend not leveraging that. For example, at contentmarketer.io, we had a product that was kind of okay, and we were still validating product–market fit. Naturally, I went to town as a marketer. I built an audience. I built an email list. We started blogging. We got lots and lots of traffic. People even converted into customers. But the feedback we got from the first month was, “I don’t think this product is right for me. It doesn’t fit.” We wasted that whole channel, and we had too many people talking about us. That sounds like a good problem to have, but it’s a really bad one because the first impression those people had of us was a product that doesn’t work for them or a bad product.
In the early days, if you’re figuring out your product and it’s still not fully ironed out, go lay the groundwork of content that you know is going to be potentially optimized or something that can rank. Go to town on channels that you can turn on and off, like outbound or cold email or advertising. Make sure when you turn them on you get feedback and data, and then turn them off until you’re ready to go.
Why content is your most powerful acquisition channel
I was talking growth with Neil Patel recently and we discussed the channels that we would both invest in long term. If we were to start all over again, what would we do? The answer was one you’d expect us to give: content marketing.
The way I see it, and the way Neil sees it as well, content is the foundation of customer acquisition. If you get content marketing working, then you are able to retarget people. You are able to build lookalike audiences on different channels. If you’re creating great content, it builds links, which brings your domain authority up.
You can write more content and then you can collect more emails and optimize your conversion rate from there, but everything starts with content first. Look at a lot of media companies – they’re building agency services divisions now. It’s easier to build an audience first, and then from there you can start to branch out into other areas.
I’ll share a story. Four years ago, I spent six hours a week on “Growth Everywhere,” the first podcast I started. Editing, recording – I did everything by hand the first year. And after the first year I was only getting nine downloads a day. That number is terrible. I should probably have given up, but I kept going because people kept emailing me saying, “Hey, I don’t know why you’re not getting more downloads but this has been really helpful. It’s made a difference in my life.” I worked for another year, again six hours a week, and I was only getting 30 downloads a day.
Nowadays “Growth Everywhere” has about 80,000 downloads a month. Not bad, but the “Marketing School” podcast gets about 640,000 downloads a month. Those succeeded because I was relentless.
The framework that I’ll give is really easy for everyone to follow. It’s the Content Reusage Framework from Aleyda Solis. She has this flowchart you can follow when you’re creating content, and it doesn’t mean you always have to be writing new stuff all the time. If you use that framework, it’s going to work out really well for you.
My point is just be relentless. Content marketing works. Content marketing is the foundation for building whatever you’re trying to do in the long term. Yes, it takes time, but anything good takes time. Just be patient.
One of the things I’m really concerned about is that we’re not just acquiring free teams. We’re here to acquire teams that have the potential of paying Slack at some point. Last year we pivoted from asking “How many teams are we creating?” to “How many work teams are we creating?” Even though an enormous amount of our team creation is social, based on how much people love Slack, work teams are the teams that pay Slack.
Then we moved from looking at work teams created to looking at what we call “early-activated work teams created”, which are teams that have actually invited somebody to join. A Slack team of one is a lonely place, and unlikely to be successful. Then, if a team has invited a couple people, have they exchanged any messages? The bar is fairly low, because it has to be something people can achieve quickly, so that we can iterate and test off of it and not wait five months. But, it’s high enough that it actually screens out a lot of teams of people who have said, “I don’t really know what Slack is. I just want to get in there and experiment with it and see if it’s at all like what I think it’s like.”
Looking at the full funnel of metrics and not just stopping at that team creation number is really important for knowing whether we are driving value for the company. The friction is so low to starting a Slack team that you could really drive a lot of really poor quality teams if you didn’t pay attention to it.
As VP of Corporate Strategy at Twitter, Elad Gil was a key player as company headcount skyrocketed from 90 to 1,500 employees.
This wasn’t Elad’s first experience with hyper growth – Google grew headcount 10x during his time as a product manager there – nor the last. He’s also co-founded Color Genomics and invested in and been an adviser to companies like Airbnb, Coinbase, Instacart, Square, Stripe and more.
To help codify his learnings throughout those experiences and share the most repeatable frameworks, he’s published the High Growth Handbook, available from Stripe Press on Tuesday, July 17.
I hosted Elad on the podcast for a conversation that ranged from the key themes of his new book to scaling a healthy culture and ins and outs of mergers and acquisitions. If you enjoy the it, check out more episodes. 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 conversation. Short on time? Here are four quick takeaways:
Before hiring a COO, founders first need to ask themselves whether the function is best served with a single hire or distributed through multiple roles.
Re-orgs are a necessary part of growth. Execute them rapidly (within 24 hours if possible) to avoid causing your employees unnecessary anxiety about the future of their jobs.
Acquisitions can help fuel growth, but often go awry when the company fails to explicitly instruct their internal teams to step aside so that the new hires can do their jobs.
Culture is the set of relationships people in the company have to each other – and the unwritten set of rules they live by – and it’s going to evolve over time. The key is picking the two or three non-negotiables that you plan to maintain.
Most growth advice is focused on solving tough problems, but it’s important to remember that being part of a rapidly scaling company is a career experience that only a tiny fraction of employees will ever have, which often leads to accelerated personal growth as well.
Adam Risman: Elad, welcome to Inside Intercom. Congratulations on the High Growth Handbook. You’ve seen hyper growth from many angles, be it as an early employee at Google, your time at Twitter, a founder at Color and an angel investor. What are a few of the key points in your career that led you to write about this?
Elad Gil: My career has been split between operating and investing. On the operating side, I joined Google when it was around 1,500 people, and I left around two and a half years later when it was 15,000 people. Then I started a company (Mixer Labs) that Twitter bought when Twitter was about 90 people, and then I left two and a half years later when it was 1,500. I stuck around for another year as an advisor, so I really saw extreme growth in both of those cases. I’ve also invested in a lot of companies like Airbnb, Coinbase, Instacart, Stripe, Square, Pinterest, Zenefits and Gusto, and have watched as some of those companies have scaled pretty dramatically.
You start to see these common patterns in terms of how things tend to evolve. Founders of breakout companies – just like founders of earlier stage companies – tend to ask more or less the same sets of questions. Obviously, each startup is unique, and the context of a startup matters a lot, but you tend to have the same questions like: “How do I hire general counsel? How do I hire a new type of executive whose function I don’t know about? How do I buy a company for the first time? How do I internationalize for the first time?” These are very common questions, and the purpose of this High Growth Handbook is to codify some of those learnings I’ve seen across different companies.
Adam: Stripe Press is publishing the book. How did that partnership come about?
Elad: It was a bit ad hoc. Stripe had been thinking for a while about either publishing books or reissuing books they’re very excited about. It really started as a conversation with John Collison, one of the co-founders of Stripe. I mentioned I’d been working on this book and that I was originally going to launch it as a website. He got excited about it being one of the first books that Stripe would launch as an imprint.
Adam: Whom are you speaking to through the book, and what are you hoping they might do differently as a result of all learnings you’re sharing?
Elad: There are three audiences I’m hoping to reach. One is founders. Every founding story is filled with challenges and a lot of effort, so the hope is to try and make life easier for them.
The second is employees. When you’re going through hyper growth, especially for the first time, it’s very chaotic and uncertain. You have no idea what the people in the management team are really thinking about. When I was at Google, I joined as a middle-layer person, not as an executive, and every six months there was re-org. My peers were getting promoted like crazy, and there was always a question of, “What’s going to happen to me?” Wen I sold my first company to Twitter, I was an executive there, but it was also a very different story. I’ve already seen hyper growth before, so I wasn’t intimidated by it, and I was able to say, “You know what? Things are going to be messy and ugly, and it’s fine. I know it’ll work out in the end, because the company’s working really well. So don’t worry about it.”
The third audience is really just the broader community of people who are interested in technology: it could be business people in other fields, investors or others.
Adam: Your message to the employee audience is really enlightening because you’re tackling everything from decisions around future funding, to the evolution of the CEO role, to when you might bring on a COO – all sorts of stuff that reveals what the decision-making process is like behind the scenes.
Elad: That’s part of the intention. Originally, I was thinking each chapter should have the employees’ view of what just happened. I decided in the end not to do it, but I do think that people assume a lot about how savvy their executive team is around certain things, and often people are just figuring this stuff out and just trying to do their best. One of my big takeaways – having gone through Google and then Twitter – is to really give the leadership team the benefit of the doubt. In general, people are trying to do the right thing, and sometimes they do, and sometimes they kind of screw it up, but that’s just the nature of something that’s changing so rapidly.
Adam: And many CEOs today are first-time CEOs too.
Elad: Especially today. It’s interesting how that’s evolved, because up until Facebook, you’d always hire in a professional CEO to run the company. Obviously, with Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg came in as COO, and that shifted the whole conversation around founders continuing to run the companies and COOs coming onboard. I think that’s been a 90% good trend, but there are maybe 10% of cases where the founders really shouldn’t be running the company anymore, and they don’t have the self-awareness to realize it. I do think it’s been a net positive though.
What to consider when hiring a COO
Adam: What should a CEO consider when making a complementary hire like a COO?
Elad: The first question is whether you want to stay on as CEO or not. Reid Hoffman has a really great post about his own decision of not being CEO at LinkedIn and how he found somebody who he viewed almost a surrogate founder. I similarly stepped down from Color, the company I started, about four years in.
Adam: I was curious if you were speaking to your past self when you were writing that chapter of the book.
Elad: A little bit. Ultimately Othman Laraki was the right person to take the company to the next level, but I think that when looking for a COO the first thing you have to consider is whether you really want a COO or you just want to distribute the role across a few people. Because you’re really centralizing a set of functions or a set of responsibilities, but you can also do it in a more distributed way.
Secondly, what are you actually looking to offload and why? Often founders who become CEOs of scaling companies start to burn out when they’re consistently doing the things that they hate doing. If you really hate sitting through a dozen sales comp meetings, maybe you should find somebody who can really fulfill that role. Part of the calculus in hiring a COO is to ask, “What do I want them to be doing?” Then there are all sorts of questions around culture fit, complementing working styles, and ultimately, how do you start thinking about working together and partnering with that person – as well as your broader executive team – as CEO?
The only good generic startup advice is that there’s no good generic startup advice
Adam: For the book, you actually interviewed outside sources like Marc Andreessen, Sam Altman at Y Combinator, Claire Hughes Johnson at Stripe about their perspectives on the various topics you tackle in the book. Why did you feel like it was so important to get that outside perspective?
Elad: Ultimately, I wanted people who had either built things that scale or been involved with a lot of companies that had to deal with scale as they broke out from a product-market-fit perspective. In some cases, these people had different viewpoint from me. They said the opposite of what my book said, and I thought that was very valuable and healthy, because the only good generic startup advice is that there’s no good generic startup advice. Some of them also had areas of expertise that I didn’t, in terms of some of the functions they were responsible for or the types of markets they were in. That outside experience either reinforced certain points that I agreed with or provided counter perspectives, which I think is important.
Adam: What’s an example where an interview subject challenged your point of view that really sticks out?
Elad: One example is the conversation I had with Naval Ravikant, who founded AngelList and is one of the smartest people in Silicon Valley. In general, AngelList has been run as a more distributed and decentralized organization than what I’m used to. He had a very different perspective – in part, based on his crypto experiences, in part from AngelList – in terms of how you think about decentralizing teams and other aspects that I hadn’t thought about as deeply.
How to think about org structure
Adam: You joined Google at 1,500 people and left at 15,000. At Twitter there 90 people when you got there, 1,500 when you left. In the book, you say that org structure is really an exercise in pragmatism. What do you mean, and how do you navigate that challenge?
Elad: If your company is scaling incredibly rapidly – maybe it’s tripling every year or growing headcount at an enormous rate – every 6 to 12 months you’re literally at a different company, because most of the people are new. The processes are probably new. The scale at which you’re operating is new, which means the way you communicate is different. You have to adapt to that, which means frequent re-orgs.
Initially, those re-orgs will be at the executive level, and then as certain executive leaders settle down, the re-orgs start to shift into the functional divisions, because suddenly you know who the leadership team is, but you’re starting a new division for some international thing or a new product, and you have to shift how product and engineering and sales are aligned against those things. So, you start to see these shifts in organizational structure.
Every 6 to 12 months you’re literally at a different company, because most of the people are new
When you’re trying to decide who’s going to run what, there are a few core considerations you need to keep in mind. The first one is where do you want tie-breaking to happen? In other words, if you have an engineering team and a design team and a product team, they’re going to disagree about all sorts of stuff, and that’s a very natural tension. That should happen. But if they take it too far, it’s bad. So you have to ask, “How do I want decisions to be made?” For example, between those three orgs, if you want product and design to sort things out between themselves, and not have that be escalated to the CEO very much, then you probably want both of those functions to report in to one person.
The other more pragmatic aspect is to realize that ultimately, there’s no single correct org structure. There are trade-offs. Do you have a COO or not? What functions does your COO own, and what functions does your CFO own? For example, at Twitter, the general counsel at the time, Alexander Macgillivray, at different times owned mergers and acquisitions, trust and safety, legal and a variety of different areas. He picked those areas up because he was a talented executive who could manage teams. He didn’t have the functional expertise, but while we hired in somebody to take over one of these functions, he was the person who was responsible for it. That was truly just a pragmatic call of who had bandwidth to do it.
Often you’ll find that when a re-org happens, it’s happening because somebody has the bandwidth to help, or something suddenly becomes very important and so somebody gets assigned to it. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to stay that way forever. It may not be the long-term right choice, but it might just be the pragmatic short-term right choice.
Navigating your next re-org
Adam: How do you communicate those changes to the wider team? The impetus behind some of these changes can easily get lost in translation.
Elad: Sometimes you want to communicate that somebody’s in an interim position, for example, and just make that explicit by saying, “We needed to launch in this new market, and therefore this person is going to own it for a while until we find somebody.” Sometimes you don’t want to do that, because it may also be very disempowering for that executive. If they’re just the interim placeholder, maybe people won’t listen to them as much, or maybe they shouldn’t be making certain hires. It can create a much harder role for that individual.
The key is trying to sort out that fine balance of being as transparent as possible, but also realizing that even within the decisions being made, there’s some flexibility and uncertainty. Maybe the salesperson who’s opening up Latin America has been told, “If you do well, you’ll keep it. If you don’t do well, it’ll go to somebody else.” That’s okay, but you may not want to communicate to the whole company that this person is on the line.
Adam: When you know these things are inevitably going to change again frequently, how do you measure the success of a re-org?
If you can do a re-org in 24 hours, you should do it in 24 hours
Elad: One is the degree to which people churn out. Are people leaving the company? Are they unhappy? You can measure employee happiness in a variety of ways. Part of it is just how people react to the changes.
A lot of the success of a re-org is also driven by how quickly you do it. One of the mistakes people make when they do re-orgs is they take a long time. They pre-announce them and say, “Over the next three weeks, we’ll be making changes.” Sometimes there are reasons to do that, but in general you want to narrow the window of time down to as short of a window as possible. If you can do a re-org in 24 hours, you should do it in 24 hours, because people get really spun up around uncertainty for themselves: “Who’s going to be my boss? What does it mean? Am I going to like her or not? What’s going to happen to me?” This voice of “me, me, me” starts to become very loud when there’s uncertainty, and it’s understandable why people would be worried. You want to take away that uncertainty as quickly as you can, and that’s why you want to do a re-org quickly. You want to know who’s going to report to whom, and you want to be able to explain those implications to people quickly.
Adam: Particularly when you’re starting to scale up, new disciplines begin to come into the mix, be it communications, marketing, people ops, etc. From your experience, are there certain departments you think companies maybe wait too long to get to?
Elad: In the book, Marc Andreessen points out that people tend to wait too long to hire an HR person. That’s one example of a crucial function. If you’re very focused on regulatory and compliance as a company, you probably want to hire somebody for that role quite early, relative to other companies. I think Coinbase made their general counsel (or a key compliance person) one of their first five or 10 hires. It can be a little bit contextual and important for some companies to add certain people that wouldn’t be important for others, and then I think there are common threads like HR that people probably add too late in most cases.
When companies should turn to M&A for growth
Adam: Your last title at Twitter was VP of Corporate Strategy. From a business operations perspective, were there new wings there that you were able to incubate?
Elad: I ended up working on a few different areas across the company, and some of them were in concert with Ali Rowghani who ended up becoming COO and now runs Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund. In some cases, it was just my team that was doing it. Those included things like certain aspects of internationalization, such as the Japan market. We spent some time working with a recruiting team really scaling up and splitting out roles within recruiting so recruiting could scale. The mergers and acquisitions team worked for me for a while. We bought a few dozen companies while that team reported to me. I also had an emphasis on early types of growth models and growth funnels. In some cases, these things were pre-existing and we just all turbo charged them, and in other cases we helped get some things up and running.
Adam: People often forget that a lot of Google products, such as mobile maps and Android, started as acquisitions. What’s your take on if and when a company should consider M&A as its next logical step for growth?
Elad: I think the vast majority of companies that are worth a few billion dollars or more are buying too few companies today. I’m actually surprised at the degree to which they’re not buying things. For a period of time when the M&A team worked for me at Twitter, something on the order of 20% or 30% of all new engineering hires were coming through M&A. Most of those were reasonably inexpensive acquisitions where we weren’t paying that much of a premium versus somebody walking in off the street, but in some cases, they filled meaningful holes in product teams.
Many founders today, especially if they’re technical, start off being very product-centric. They think coming up with great products drives the primary success of their company, which is true very early on and often true late. But what they don’t necessarily realize is at some point, they shift from being a product-only company to a company that has product and distribution. Really what they should be doing is taking advantage of the fact that they have distribution that other people don’t. They can also either buy or build companies and products and then push them down that distribution channel. That was Microsoft’s strategy in the ’90s with Office as a suite. That was also Google’s strategy, if you look at things like Android and Chrome. That was, to some extent, Facebook’s strategy. That was definitely Oracle’s strategy. Cisco did this ad nauseam and still does it.
A lot of the best companies have done this, but I think for some reason, it has taken a little bit longer for many companies in today’s era to do that. Coinbase is a good example and is actually buying quite aggressively. I think it’s a smart strategy to say: “We have this great platform. Let’s buy things and distribute them.”
Adam: You came into Twitter through acquisition. What sticks with you the most from when you were being integrated into the organization? From a cultural perspective maybe, what went smoothly? What was a little rough around the edges?
Elad: The acquisition of Mixer Labs by Twitter was really a seminal moment for me. I thought Twitter was an amazing platform by which you could communicate with hundreds of millions of people globally. It had an enormous and amazing developer community, and it was just one of those companies that you’re lucky to be a part of.
Companies tend to screw things up in three core areas. First is in the onboarding. How do you actually onboard the people that you’re buying? What are their roles going to be? And how can you make sure people get out of the way? Often, you buy a company but there’s a small internal team that was nascent or semi existent in the parent company – and that team thinks it owns the area you just bought a bunch of people for. So you need to be very explicit with that internal team that they need to get out of the way.
The second place where they screw it up is in overthinking the degree to which things need to be integrated early. If you look at some of Google’s best acquisitions, in some cases they integrated immediately, and in some cases they let things like Android run as an independent part of the company. You also saw that, for a while at least, with Facebook giving WhatsApp and Instagram more leeway than other internal groups. Too many companies overthink the degree to which technical integration needs to happen, and they’ll force people to pour it over to their stack, when what they should be doing instead is just distributing the existing thing, and then having a longer-term road map to port it. Maybe it takes two years, and that’s okay. You don’t need to freeze everything and then port.
The problems people encounter in their lives rarely change from generation to generation. The products they hire to solve these problems change all the time.
If you’re building a new product, it’s because you believe you can create a better solution that people will want to use because it delivers a better outcome. A strong understanding of the outcomecustomerswant, and how they currently get it, is essential for you to succeed in product development.
Focusing on outcome … lets you understand your real competitors
Maybe your customers want to be entertained, or spend more time with their friends, or understand what projects teammates are working on, or maybe they want to project growth for their business. If the desired outcome is real then they are already achieving it through some product in some way. Your job is to improve upon that.
Sidenote: If you can’t find what product they’re currently using, the chances are that it’s a fictitious outcome (“Wouldn’t it be cool if…”) or an aspirational one (“Of course I want to lose weight”). Espoused behavior never reflects reality.
Focusing on outcome, rather than category, industry or product type, lets you understand your real competitors. The second a company focuses on “the industry it’s in” rather than the “outcome it delivers”, it loses touch, and shortly after, loses customers.
Newspapers, for example, believed they were in the “Newspaper Industry”, and as such struggled to work out why bored commuters had stopped buying their product. They would look left and right at their competitors and wonder which newspaper had stolen their customers. They would experiment with new formats, new layouts, lower prices, sharper headlines, but they couldn’t stop the rot. Had they instead focused on the outcome they deliver (bored commuters want to be entertained for short bursts of time with bite-sized articles), then their competitors (Twitter, Facebook, news apps) wouldn’t have been so oblique to them.
What people want
Let’s look at some jobs that, like boredom during a commute, have stuck around for years, through hundreds of technological advances.
People wanted to pass notes and messages, without fear of other people seeing them…
People still want this
People wanted to store photos in a safe place…
People still want this
People wanted to put their favourite photos in a prominent place, so everyone could see them…
People still want this.
People wanted to collect scrapbooks of ideas…
People still want this.
People wanted to post their friends and loved ones newspaper clippings…
People still want this.
People wanted to leave nice reviews, and tips for other travellers…
People still want this.
Making things people want
There are literally hundreds of examples like the ones above and there’s a common trend in all of them. Making things people want involves understanding a longstanding human or business need and then using technology to:
Make it possible for more people
Make it possible in more situations
The first approach, removing steps, is the most common for start-ups. Pick a need where the existing solutions are old, complex and bloated, and find the simplest smallest set of steps possible to deliver the same outcome. Arranging a taxi in a city used to involve calling many numbers until you find a company with availability, then a lengthy dialogue about your location, destination and required arrival time. Today you press one button and a car shows up.
Jeff Bezos is famous for saying ‘Focus on the things that don’t change’
The second approach usually involves reducing the cost (in time or money), or barriers to using a product so that more people can use it, thus expanding the market. Not so long ago ago, if someone wanted to get their writing online they had to rent a linux server, download a .tar.gz file containing the source code of a blogging engine, upload it, run a series of weird commands to unpack it and give it write access, and then configure it. Today you can do the same job in two clicks with Medium.
The third approach involves removing common situational limitations on a workflow. Accepting payment used to involve bulky machines with rolls of thermal paper, faxing paperwork to banks, ISDN lines, and batch transaction transfers run nightly. Today you swipe a card through a phone and you’re done.
Jeff Bezos is famous for saying “Focus on the things that don’t change.” The problems that people and businesses encounter don’t change often. The ways they can be solved changes almost yearly. So it stands to reason that making things people want should start with the “what people want” bit, and not the more tempting “things we can make”.
Remember: It’s easier to make things people want than it is to make people want things.
In order to make bootstrapping work, you need to be scrappy, ruthlessly prioritizing your actions and avoiding non-essential expenses. Having one tool that helps you do all your most important work – sales, marketing and support – makes life so much easier.
We’ve been pretty vocal about our love for Intercom as we’ve grown Ad Reform and Userfeed, our profitable, bootstrapped SaaS businesses over the last year. We run both entire businesses through the platform.
However, when I talk to other entrepreneurs or startup folks, most of them ask:
“Isn’t Intercom just a chat app? Aren’t there lots of those out there?”
I’ve been asked this so often that I figured I’d share exactly how we use Intercom, the benefits it provides our business and more importantly, the benefits it provides our customers. I’ll break it down into standard use cases, and some of our more unique use cases that Intercom enables.
Standard use cases
Support is one of the most common use cases people think of when using Intercom. By giving your users the ability to chat directly with your team, not only does it give your team the ability to solve support issues faster, but it allows your users to engage with your company in a much more human way.
Nobody wants to go write up an email or fill out a form for support anymore. We’re in the age of messaging, so it’s important to connect with users in their preferred channels. Conversations like these just don’t happen when a user fills out a form.
When a customer has an issue I want to do three things:
Chat with them quickly to understand the problem.
Replicate the issue.
Track the issue so we can address it quickly and share updates with the customer as we go.
I can chat with the user immediately in Intercom, replicate the issue by watching the last Fullstory user recording (via Fullstory’s Intercom integration), and track the issue in our “Bugs feed” via Userfeed (which will associate the user with this issue and link the conversation in Intercom so whoever is fixing the issue has context).
In addition to talking to customers directly, you can empower them to find answers themselves using Intercom’s knowledge base.
We’ve built out Ad Reform’s knowledge base to allow users to search on their own and make it easy for our team to send help articles directly within the Intercom Messenger.
Making it simple for website visitors to engage with you at the beginning of the sales process is key to conversion rates. You did all this work and spent all this money to drive someone to your website. Don’t blow it by making it hard for them to engage with you.
We have Intercom’s Messenger on our website, enabling visitors to ask us questions, provide us their email for content or trials and schedule demos at a time that works best for them (via Calendly). We also use Intercom’s Operator (their messenger bot) to automate lead flows for situations when we’re not around our computer (e.g. when we’re sleeping ).
Intercom is continuing to expand what it can do for the sales use cases and I’m excited to see what’s next here.
The value Intercom brings to your marketing team is the ability to segment users on tons of attributes, send targeted in-app or email messages to those segments and market to both leads and users.
With Intercom, you can capture valuable data about your users and how they’re using your product. This enables you to create segments of users based on things like location, revenue, industry or certain behaviors within the product. Once you have some segments set up, you can email users with more targeted, relevant content that they might be interested in (like an update to a feature they requested), or that could help them achieve better results within your product.
Most companies spend all their marketing efforts on leads and trying to generate more leads. Marketing shouldn’t stop after you bring on a customer. Losing customers is so painful to a bootstrapped SaaS business, so keeping (and upgrading) current customers is hugely important to growth. Marketing to current customers enables you to improve in these two areas, and Intercom enables you to reach out to the right people, at the right time, within the right channels (email/in-app).
When we started our business, I was reaching out to leads manually upon signup and during our 7-day trial period. Our whole sales team used to do this at my previous company as well, all manually. To improve upon this, we implemented Intercom, which has a pretty awesome startup plan for just $49/m. We built out a fairly simple onboarding flow which includes:
An email upon signup.
An in-app message for a first-time user, linking them to helpful articles in the knowledge base.
An email reminding the user they have three days left on the trial.
An email notifying the user that the trial has ended, offering a link to the upgrade page and asking for any feedback.
More importantly, there are no pop-ups on every marketing page asking if you need help. We aren’t big fans of that experience so we didn’t want to force it on our users. Here’s a link to awesome examples of SaaS onboarding that we used for inspiration.
Unique use cases
If you’re building a SaaS product, you’re probably rolling out features and improvements all the time. Moving fast is key, but it can be helpful to test a new feature with a certain segment of users before you roll it out to everyone. We utilize Intercom’s data platform and tagging function to do this.
When we want to toggle a feature for certain companies, we simply search for the companies in Intercom and tag them with the corresponding feature tag we created. Boom: the feature is live in their account.
I can then gather product usage data on all companies that have this feature turned on and send them a relevant message (within Intercom) if necessary.
Intercom is the best source of user feedback that I’ve experienced in my career. In the past, I’ve seen people try everything to gather valuable feedback from customers:
On site meetings.
PM asks sales or customer success for an intro to a client so they can jump on the phone.
Surveys with incentives for users who fill them out.
A link to an ideas forum the user has to create a separate login for.
Post-churn call or email.
Asking sales people to put feedback in Salesforce.
All of these channels are flawed, and anyone that’s done them knows that a very small percentage of users will actually offer feedback through these avenues (maybe 5%). Nobody has time. It takes effort on their part to respond to a survey, spend time on a phone call or go login to some other product and write up a feature request. Even when you do get feedback, the silos between customer facing reps and your product team, plus the multitude of places people put feedback (Trello, Slack, email, Google Chat, Salesforce, etc.), makes it incredibly easy to let that valuable feedback slip through the cracks.
Intercom, on the other hand, offers users the unique capability to chat with the team behind the product, in the context of the app. It’s seamless, so you are far more likely to get questions from users that turn into feedback or feature requests.
Often what starts as a question turns into a feature request and the conversation continues to develop.
You’ll notice this conversation in Intercom started as a question and evolved into a valuable feature request, with our CTO chiming in via notes (which the user can’t see). We added the feature request to our user feedback product that we built (Userfeed) and linked the conversation to that feature to add context for our product team. Plus, if that request ever comes up again in Intercom or elsewhere, all I have to do is tag the interested user to tie them to the post in Userfeed (e.g. tag them with custom-scheduling-for-ads-txt-monitoring:userfeed).
Intercom and Userfeed make it dead simple for users to offer feedback freely within our app, without being prompted. Plus, it provides a clear channel for customer success folks to relay that feedback to our product team. This process allows us to get more feedback where users already offer it, decreases the chance that feedback slips through the cracks, maintains context for your product teams and shows your users that they’re partners in the growth of the product.
When we first started using Intercom, I remember my co-founder Kyle and I looking at each other and saying, “Man, you could build a bunch of interesting products on top of the Intercom platform.” The biggest reason for that being the powerful API they expose to developers. If you’ve read this far, then you already know we’ve built a user feedback product on the Intercom platform (Userfeed).
Intercom has been really focused on being a platform for developers, doubling down on that recently with the release of their new Business Messenger.
Now, companies can build apps for Messenger to enable an even more personalized experience for users. In fact, we recently built one for Userfeed, making it easier for customer success reps to submit feedback on behalf of a user, and giving users a simple way to submit, browse, and vote on feedback without ever leaving your app.
If you’re a smaller SaaS business, do yourself a favor and give Intercom a try. There are a few other tools out there like it (we’ve tried out Drift and Crisp which are both great products too), but nothing has given us a better overall value. The product has been a huge reason for our early success, and the possibilities for improving user engagement are endless.
Shipping product fast and often means more opportunities for the sales team to delight customers and engage with prospects. But your sales team needs a lot more than an email on launch day to maximize the opportunities that product launches present.
Here at Intercom, the sales enablement team is responsible for ensuring sales reps have the skills and resources they need to capitalize on product launches. Before sales enablement became an official function, our sales team didn’t have a way to learn about features before they were shipped. That led to some awkward conversations where customers would tell us about what’s new instead of the other way around! Today our sales enablement team acts as a filter for the massive streams of information that accompany launches and distills it to what reps need to know to sell the new feature effectively.
The work of sales enablement begins as soon as the product roadmap is set. We partner with stakeholders in marketing and product to assess what’s coming down the line and determine the best way for the sales team to get new features into the hands of customers and prospects. The goal is to make sure, through a robust, cross-functional approach, that the investment we make in our product pays off in the market. At a high level, our process looks like this:
Having recently led our sales enablement efforts for our new Messenger, I’ll use that launch to illustrate the exact steps I followed to set our sales team up for success.
1. Assess the complexity of the new feature
It’s important to look at new features from two perspectives, the reps’ and the customers’. The level of complexity associated with what’s being launched is a leading factor in the sales enablement activities you do. To assess the complexity of our new Messenger, I asked the following questions:
How different is the new Messenger from the old one?
How different is it to what’s available on the market?
Does it introduce new concepts to customers or the market?
For every launch, I use our sales and product teams as a sounding board. These are things they think about everyday. If their answers aren’t clear, I get volunteers from the sales team to test the new features, watch how quickly they adopt it and track any questions they have. Their reactions are a good proxy for how the rest of the sales team and our customers will react.
2. Determine the potential opportunity or risk
The upsides of some product launches are immediately apparent. If you’re releasing a new product with its own pricing plan, that’s a clear opportunity to drive new business and upsell current customers. But there are other circumstances where a change might be received negatively. If you’re retiring a feature or increasing your prices, customers might react by churning or contracting their accounts. Our goal in sales enablement is to give the sales team ample time and assistance to get ahead of any opportunities or risks.
Upgrading to our new Messenger was free. On the face of it, that seemed to mitigate any risk but changing our core product meant a whole new experience for our customers and their customers. The imperative for the sales team was showing customers how our new Messenger added value that wasn’t there before and helping them get set up.
3. Decide on your sales enablement activities
Now that you’ve assessed complexity and opportunity, you can make an informed decision about what your sales reps need to make the most out of the product launch. It may seem obvious but the more complex the product launch is and the bigger the risk or opportunity tied to it, the more training you should do. If a new feature is straightforward and frequently requested by customers, you won’t need to do much training — everyone will easily understand it. Here are the activities I chose to do for our Messenger launch:
In-person sessions on messaging and competitive landscape: we’ve found the social aspect of group sessions to be very impactful for getting reps trained. My advice is be selective which product launches you do this for because it takes reps away from selling.
Product walkthroughs for how to use the Messenger: it’s important to show reps the end-to-end workflow for the new feature so they can explain it in sales conversations. I asked a product expert do this for our new Messenger because the walkthrough was quite involved.
Workshops with subject matter experts: because our new Messenger is substantially different from our old one, I asked internal experts like Brian, our Director of Product Management, to explain the value of the new features to our sales team.
Pitch decks and templates to use in sales conversations: giving reps the tools they need to talk about the new features is critical. For our Messenger launch, we created a deck with our core messaging that reps could customize for specific prospects.
Physical one-pagers for easy reference: a simple summary of what’s launching is a great way to build enthusiasm on the day of. I printed them so they were within reach when reps were having their first conversations about the Messenger.
Internal communications plan to build excitement: when your company is moving quickly, there are a lot of things vying for reps’ attention. A few well-timed emails about the value of forthcoming features can help reps get and stay excited for launch day.
4. Create and execute your sales enablement plan
Preparing for a product launch is a deeply cross-functional process
Preparing for a product launch is a deeply cross-functional process. There are lots of moving parts and work done in tandem. It’s important stakeholders from marketing, product and sales are all speaking the same language and fully aware of each other’s goals early on. For big product launches, we work with our Program Management team to establish clear responsibilities for each stakeholder, set concrete milestones and maintain visibility into how each team is progressing.
Once all your stakeholders are aligned, which is always easier said than done, you can start gathering information and executing on your sales enablement activities. I create one document that serves as the source of truth for product specs, product positioning and sales assets. Here’s a quick overview of the plan I created for the Messenger launch:
On launch day, you need to be able to react to any problems or opportunities that arise. A successfully executed plan means nothing out of the ordinary happens. But as with all things in life, that’s only sometimes the case. I monitor customer responses to messages in our sales team inbox and ask our reps for ongoing feedback in a Slack channel to see how our product messaging is resonating. For bigger launches like the new Messenger, I also monitor our product, marketing and customer support channels in Slack. My aim is to spot issues, like negative reactions to our messaging or pricing, early so we can resolve them quickly.
6. Measure the impact of the product launch
There are two types of feedback we look for with product launches: feedback on the product and feedback on the training. I want to know, did our sales reps have the right resources and feel confident taking the new feature to market? How did prospects and customers respond?
The best way I’ve found to gather feedback is to survey the sales team two weeks after the launch. All of this information gets funneled into my process for the next launch and especially for big wins or learnings, shared with our stakeholders in Marketing and Product. Here’s the survey I sent to sales reps after our Messenger launch:
Intercom’s approach to sales enablement is constantly evolving as our team, product offerings and business grow. But what stays the same is our robust, cross-functional approach to product launches. For me it’s critical that every stakeholder sees the value and effort we put in coming back out, whether it’s as revenue, retention or customer happiness.
If you’ve ever looked at your diary, notebook, sticky notes and email inbox in the middle of a busy sales period and thought, “This isn’t working,” you’re not alone.
For years, I used to try to organize my thoughts and ideas without structure, missing sales opportunities and forecasts as a result. Then, I found the answer – the concept of a sales pipeline. I now had order where there had been chaos. I could take the initiative with existing opportunities, control the entire sales process and close more deals.
The best thing about a sales pipeline is that it’s easy to get started. Here are a few of the ideas that worked for me when building a pipeline.
1. Decide what your ideal sales pipeline looks like
Let’s start by mapping out your pipeline so we can see how it looks. When you get those first ideas about people and companies that might need what you sell, you’re already taking the first steps in building a pipeline. You probably have more than one idea for prospects. Some of those will go all the way through and close; others won’t. But these conversations and how they progress will form your pipeline. You build a pipeline by creating a number of steps to go from that initial idea to a closed sale – these are your sales stages.
These might be:
Targets – very early days, not yet contacted
Contacted – you’ve called or emailed
Meeting agreed – you’ve set an agenda and a date for the diary
Proposal sent – you’ve submitted a formal proposal with a $ figure
Close – now it’s time to get the signature on the bottom line
But that’s only part of it. It’s important to remember that your sales stages have to mirror the buying stages of your prospects or customers. You’ll see I included “Proposal sent” in the stages – that’s because typically one has to submit a fully costed proposal to customers as a requirement in their “buying cycle.” Everyone’s buying cycle is different, but trust me, it helps to have a good idea of your customers and how they like to buy.
An example of what your sales stages might look like
2. Calculate the “magic numbers”
The magic question is: how many deals do you need to add to your pipeline to meet your objectives? It would be great to win every deal you’ve submitted a proposal for, but this doesn’t happen. If you know how many deals you win on average, you can easily calculate the number of deals you need in each of the early stages. If you calculate your numbers, you’ll be able to see how your pipeline looks and what number of deals you need to be adding to the top of the pipeline to reach your goals.
We explain this a little bit more in the video below:
Sales Pipeline Management in 4 Minutes - Pipedrive.com - YouTube
3. Build stage-to-stage momentum
Once you have your pipeline stages laid out, you have to keep deals on track. When you’re moving your deals stage-to-stage, what are the factors or variables that will help you advance your deal? It could be sending a written proposal, identifying the stakeholders or getting the budget approved – there’s an event at each stage that moves the deal along.
It’s a good habit to set yourself objectives for these key events. You can control the activities to keep the pipeline moving, not the results. Setting objectives for yourself that relate to how many proposals you send and new prospect conversations you have per day is the best guarantee that your deal flow doesn’t stall.
4. Find your routine to fill the pipeline
Activities that add new deals to your pipeline need to be part of your routine – daily or, depending on your business, weekly. Back in my days of active sales, I liked to start every day with a cup of coffee and that’s when I did calling and prospecting to find new deals. It worked for me because it was a habit. You might have to try out different ideas before you find a routine that suits you – a particular time of day, a day of the week or a regular slot in your diary when you can really focus on putting deals into the pipeline. When you keep that focus and habit for finding new targets, you don’t need to worry about your sales pipeline.
Pro tip #1: Do similar kinds of calls together with a team member. This introduces a competitive element and adds a bit of “peer pressure.”
In summary, set up your stages and do what it takes to move deals from one stage to the next; then, adopt a healthy approach to your pipeline building activities. It will help you meet your numbers. And that, in turn, will help you build a successful business.
Doug Landis often sees an unsuccessful sales pitch stumble straight out of the gate. Specifically at the very first slide in the pitch deck.
The problem, Doug says, is salespeople tend to focus too much on their company and the names on their client roster, rather than connecting with their audience. The easiest way to do that? Tell a compelling story.
Today, Doug is a Growth Partner at Emergence Capital. Previously, however, he ran sales productivity for teams at Google, Salesforce and Box. His time at the latter culminated in the title of Chief Storyteller, where he rewrote the script for how Box sales team talked to and about their customers.
In this episode of our podcast, Doug and I chat about what makes a compelling story, how to distill a founder’s high level vision into something more relatable to individual buyers, and much more. If you enjoy the it, check out more episodes. 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 conversation. Short on time? Here are four quick takeaways:
Your job in sales is to build credibility, and you do that by being relatable and using the voice of your customers. You use their stories– where they were and where they are now – to help paint a picture of what’s possible.
Rewrite your first call deck. Your first three slides are likely all about you: “who we are, here are all our customers, here’s the problem we’re trying to solve.” But customers want to know about themselves.
To create stories that sell, utilize contrast, analogy, emotion and descriptive language over facts. Human beings naturally want to argue with facts and see proof. If you’ve done the first part well, however, facts can back up the story you told and create a great one-two punch.
There are three stories you should know cold: why your company exists, why you work there and what you’ve learned from customers your company has helped.
Adam Risman: Doug, welcome to Inside Intercom. Can you give us a quick introduction to what you’re doing today at Emergence Capital?
Doug Landis: I’m a Growth Partner at Emergence Capital, and my primary focus is the investment committee. I help source and complete deals, and I perform due diligence on deals. When we invest in a company, I step in, roll up my sleeves, get my hands dirty and help them figure out how they’re going to grow from $1 or $2 million in ARR to $10, $50, or $100 million, culminating in an IPO or a significant exit.
I think of it as go-to-market consulting. My approach is super tactical. I’m not just going to sit in that ivory tower and say, “Oh, what’s your MQL conversion rate?” Instead I’m asking, “What is your MQL conversion rate, and why is it not higher?” And then, “What are our reps doing as soon as they actually get an MQL? What’s that first touch point? And how are they engaging with their customers? How are they running their meetings? How do we know who we’re targeting and their willingness to buy?” I get very in the weeds, and build sales playbooks, sales process and all that other fun stuff.
Adam: You’re looking mostly at Series A, Series B companies, right? How do you establish rapport with a new company once you invest?
Doug: Here’s a little background on Emergence: we are hyper-focused on B2B enterprise SAAS companies. It’s really interesting what I’ve learned; I’ve only been on this side of the table for about a year and a half, but we’re in the people business because we only do Series A and Series B stage investments. (If you have a company you want to talk about, shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.) We fundamentally want to invest in people that are changing the future of work with a focus on SAAS being your vehicle and B2B being your focus. We’re not into B2C, we’re not into IoT, we’re not in health tech; we’re hyper-focused, and that’s also what allowed me to step into this role after being an operator for the last 20 years. I continue to do what I love doing, which is helping startups figure out how to build and grow.
Coining sales productivity
Adam: Speaking of your background as an operator, you were at Salesforce for a while, and you then went to Box and held a few different roles there. What was your progression like as you grew those companies?
Doug: At the end of the day, I’m a salesperson at heart. I have been my whole life. I literally eat, think, drink, breath, and sleep sales. And I’m constantly thinking about how do we help salespeople get smarter, better and faster. It’s not really a profession you can study in college. As my good buddy John Barrows and I talk about, there are 20 to 25 schools that actually have degrees in sales.
I worked at Oracle in the early days where you really learn discipline. We were making 100 calls a day and if we were below that, we were on the chopping block. We were building the foundational elements of what it takes to be a great salesperson.
After Oracle, I left and I started my own technology company, and it was eye opening to really understand what it takes to actually build a company. Building a company is about pattern recognition: Do you have the right market? Do you have the right go-to-market strategy? Do you have the right product? Do people want to pay for it? After I started my company in the first dotcom boom of the late ’90s, I had to do an assessment after we ran out of capital. We had raised three rounds of funding. I shut it down, and was thinking, “Now what am I going to do? I can go back into sales.” That’s one beautiful thing about sales: you can always go back into selling. And if you’re good, it doesn’t matter how old you are.
Adam: The mediums might change. You might be off the phone and onto messenger, but a lot of these skills translate.
Doug: That’s a really good analogy. I realized I get way more value out of helping other sales people figure out how to tap into their full potential. Then I went to go work for Google, running sales productivity, which was really sales training development. I went to Salesforce after that, and that’s where we coined the term “sales productivity.” It didn’t exist 15 years ago. When I left, there were about 80 people hyper-focused on how to make our sales people smarter, better and faster at what they do. After five years there, I went to Box.
Adam: What was it about Box at the time that made you make that jump from Salesforce, which must have been a pretty comfortable position I imagine? Did you feel like the engine was running so well you needed a new challenge?
Doug: It’s very difficult to leave the mother ship. There were two reasons: first, Aaron Levie is really impressive. After my first meeting with him I said, “I want to work for that guy.” His mind works in a special way. The second thing was that I got to build it from scratch. There were two former AEs on the team who needed some direction, so it was kind of like rinse, repeat, and build a playbook. It was so fun.
Distilling the 40,000-foot vision
Adam: Your last role at Box was particularly interesting – I believe you invented it out of thin air. What does “Chief Storyteller” mean in a sales environment?
When we get to work, we start speaking in bullets, phrases and jargon. It makes no sense.
Doug: There were three parts to it. First, the best salespeople in the world are incredible storytellers. At the end of the day it’s how we all talk to one another. We tell stories. I go home and tell my wife the story of my day. But when we get to work, we start speaking in bullets, phrases and jargon, and it makes no sense. Second, when you have a really prolific leader like an Aaron Levie or a Marc Benioff or a Larry Page and Sergey Brin, you’ve got people who are incredibly intelligent. They’re speaking at 40,000 feet about how to transform or disrupt an industry in a way that most people can’t really grasp. The idea is to take those ideas and turn them into something a bit more tangible. How do I take Aaron’s message and actually tell that to a customer that doesn’t really get it because they’re in Kansas?
Adam: I’m sure it’s difficult to do that confidently, because Aaron has a level of credibility that a front-line account manager frankly doesn’t have.
Doug: That’s the reality. Nobody in the company other than the founder or CEO actually has any level of credibility, unless they’ve been in the industry for 20-odd years and they’re a known entity. And if you’re in sales, unfortunately you’re at the bottom of the barrel – especially if you have “sales” in your title, which is terrible. Get rid of it is my first suggestion.
Your job is to build credibility, and how do you do that? You use the voice of your customers. You use what you’ve learned over time and the stories that you’ve heard about your customers – and the contrast between where they were and where are they now – to help paint a picture of what’s possible. That’s what people buy into.
Adam: So it’s not just how you talk to your customers, but how you talk about your customers as well.
Doug: Totally. The Chief Storyteller role came out of the fact we didn’t have a CMO at the time. We had a bunch of what I call “Frankenstein decks,” because we had multiple products. Head of Security was building one deck, Head of Platform was building another deck, Core was building another deck, Customer Success was building another deck, and then my job was to pull it all together and go present it to a customer. There was no cohesion, no consistency, and it was all about us. It was remarkably self-serving. I realized people didn’t have the tools to go turn it all upside down and change the voice we were using.
Crafting a customer-centric narrative
Adam: Take us back to your office the day you pitched Aaron on creating this position: you’ve just walked out of the room and he’s now on board, what do you do next? What are some of the tangible things you can do to actually change how Box told stories?
Doug: I asked myself that very same question. I didn’t want to go sit and write customer stories, although I ended up doing some of that. So many people write their customer stories as “Here’s the problem, here’s how we solved it, and here’s our ROI.” That doesn’t mean shit. All a salesperson is going to do is state a bunch of facts and bullets. I want to know the glue. I want to know who that person is. I want to know what they’re really struggling with. I want to know how their world could be different if they just opened their eyes or thought about it differently.
I did a couple of things: I met with everybody in customer success and tried to extrapolate the best stories possible. Then I tried to reorient them and give them back to marketing. I’d say, “If you’re the Head of Security and you’re building your security deck for our reps to use, we need to reorient it and make sure we’re using the voice of our customers in these tiny stories.” Our job is to help our customers identify problems they haven’t quite considered, and we’re going to pull those problems out of our existing customers. Then we’ll share them internally both with marketing and sales so that it reorients our conversation.
Our goal is to get customers to look at us and see something they hadn’t considered before
Lastly, and probably most importantly, we rewrote our whole first call deck. If you look your very first one, probably the first slide is “here’s who we are,” and then the second slide is “here are all our customers,” and then the third slide is “here’s the problem that we’re trying to solve.” That’s a problem, because the first three or four slides are all about you.
Customers want to know about themselves, and the only way they can compare themselves is if you give them insight into other people just like them. The first slide should say, “Listen, this is what we learned from our customers, who we feel are pretty similar to you. And the truth is, while you may think this is your fundamental problem the reality is that you might have problem 2, 3, 4 and 5. And if you don’t have those problems now, it’s quite possible you’re going to experience those down the road. If you think that’s possible, then let’s dig into what those problems could fundamentally mean to you and how to think about solving those.”
Adam: You mentioned finding ways to share these internally, particularly in marketing. I’m curious how that went and how you were able to develop some consistency there, because marketing typically is we’re speaking to the masses.
Doug: First, you have to create a template for marketing that reorients the way in which they build decks. This is no offense to anybody in marketing, but in product marketing your job is to translate from the product managers what the product is all about, the value that product delivers and the ROI that you can hopefully deliver by using this product. What’s missing in all of that is the customers. At the end of the day, your product is solving a particular problem, but you have to show how you validated that. Is your product solving more than one problem? Most likely it is, so how do you want to talk about it?
Our goal is to get our customers to look at us and see something they hadn’t considered before. Chris Voss, one of FBI’s best negotiators for 25 years, wrote a book called Never Split The Difference. One of the things he gets you to think about in the world of negotiation is not getting somebody to say “yes,” but to get them to say, “That’s right.” The moment they say that, you now have proof that you built enough empathy and demonstrated your level of understanding to them. The moment that happens, you’ve got them.
Building stories that sell with analogies and contrast
Adam: What do you see as the cornerstones of a really strong compelling story? And I don’t just mean beginning, middle and end, but what elements have to be there to get the person who’s receiving this to the end?
Doug: Contrast. Contrast is one of the most powerful vehicles for storytelling. It’s where are you today versus where could you be tomorrow. It’s what do you have now versus what could you have. Old way, new way – it’s all bout contrast. And it’s not contrast by me simply telling you about it, but it’s me using examples. Me telling you is not necessarily all that believable. If I got it right, then maybe it’s a little bit more believable, but in many cases we’re kind of guessing, because we don’t know exactly what’s going on with our customers. Contrast is a really, really important vehicle.
Analogies are another really important vehicle. We speak our own speak, drink our own champagne and eat our own dog food. Whatever it is, our customers don’t get it. So using analogies and metaphors is really an interesting way to actually help make complex things actually sound simple.
This goes deeper than saying you’re “the Airbnb of X” or “the Uber for Y.” That’s super surface level. Let’s use Box as an example: Box for many people is about syncing and sharing file storage. Okay, that’s true, but it’s so much more. So how do you get people to understand how much more it is, when they’re thinking, “No, it’s just storage and storage is cheap, so why the hell am I going to pay $35?” You have to reorient their thinking. An analogy is a really good way.
Contrast is one of the most powerful vehicles for storytelling
When it comes to thinking about analogies, sit in a room with your sales team and your marketing team, and write on a whiteboard your company’s name. Let’s use Intercom as an example: Intercom is like, dot, dot, dot, and leave it and let everybody just brain dump. Intercom is like your personal concierge or Intercom is like your favorite barista at a coffee shop. You walk in, they have exactly what you want, you don’t even have to blink to get your coffee. That’s a great exercise to come up with analogies for your company. Have everybody brainstorm and get creative. Just nothing is wrong or bad, and then you’re going to find a couple that really stick and that’s what’s going to help you use analogies to help explain who you are and what you do.
Of course, you got to have emotion, which is why we’re using more adverbs. We’re using descriptive language to talk about what’s really going on versus facts and statements. Facts, by the way, are the other thing that’s really important. When you state a fact, the first thing we do by default as human beings is argue against that fact. We don’t believe it. You tell me a fact, I’m like, “Where’s your proof?” Especially if you’re in sales. If you’re in sales I’m already defensive, and then you throw out a fact and I’m wondering, “How do I know that’s true?” Be really mindful about using more emotion versus facts. Facts you can use to back up the story that you just told. It’s a great little one-two punch.
Adam: What other brands use storytelling well in sales?
Doug: Salesforce is one of the best. Marc is a marketing genius, which is also why CMOs don’t necessarily last there very long. They’ve done a remarkable job telling the stories of their customers. At every Dreamforce, customers are the number-one thing that’s highlighted across the entire conference. They’re a customer-centric company. Take note of that. It’s a different way of approaching how to engage people.
Adam: A lot of our listeners are in a place where they are one of the very first sales hires at their company, and they’re being given that 40,000-foot high story from their founder. What’s the first step they can take to translate that into the more relatable, cohesive product that you’re talking about?
Doug: I don’t care if you’re a founder-seller, the first seller in the organization or if there’s three or four of you: you need to own three stories cold.
Why your company exists – what problem it solves, the founder’s aha moment.
Why you personally work there – 57% of buyer decisions have to do with a sales experience, and that means you have to have some level of empathy and understanding of whom you’re talking to. Part of that is sharing your own personal story and building a connection and relationship.
A customer story.
Those are the tools you have. When you first join a company, you’re typically given the “why this company” story. So if you’re the first sales person, you need to develop your own “why” story, and then you need to develop what I call your own personal “aha moment.” Use the product, and get to know it intimately, so that you can say, “I totally get why this is so meaningful to our customers.”
Spreading knowledge across the portfolio
Adam: Fast forwarding to today at Emergence a little bit, is this one of the key elements that you’re still coaching a lot of the portfolio companies on? What types of problems are you solving for them most frequently?
Doug: We 100% get into story telling. In fact, one of the first things I do when I meet with a new company we’ve invested in is ask for their first call deck. I don’t care what role you have in the company, if you’re the Head of Marketing, you’re the first AE, you’re the Head of Sales, or even the CEO, I’m like, “Send me what you use. We’re going to rebuild it.” Because I guarantee you it’s going to fall in the old same trap, which is, “Here’s who we are, and here are our customers.”
In the early days it’s, “Here’s how much money we raised, here are our founders, and here are our backers.” That doesn’t really mean anything. You have to earn the right to actually share that information.
We’re in the business of pattern recognition
In the world of early-stage investing, we’re in the business of pattern recognition. Series A- and series B-stage companies all kind of struggle with the same things, especially if these are technical founder-led companies, and they’ve just recently made their first one or two hires. The reality is: we dig into everything and ask whom we sell to and why. How do we know that those are the right buyers for our products? Are we trying to go up stream too quickly?
Adam: I imagine it’s got to be especially hard for the technical founders who aren’t used to selling to know that maybe a particularly flashy logo isn’t the right whale to chase at that point.
Doug: Part of it is getting them to think, “Are we resourced?” What if you signed up at Proctor and Gamble and had 50,000 people using your product all at once and they had a problem, or there was a bug? How do you respond to them? Do you have enough people in customer support, or customer success to make sure that they’re wildly successful, or to make sure that their pains are fixed if there’s an issue? Do you have the infrastructure to actually support that many people on the project? There are a whole bunch of usability questions and company questions: Whom do we sell to? How do we know they’re the right customers? What’s the propensity to buy and what’s their willingness to pay? Those are two different factors, by the way.
Patrick Campbell at ProfitWell always talks about this willingness to pay component that a lot of people neglect. For our existing customers today, how do we make them wildly successful, and how do we know about their willingness to pay continually? How is this a must-have versus a nice-to-have? It’s a really, really important question we dig into in the early days. Then we get into buyer personas, hiring plans, hiring strategies and sales operating models.
Adam: And I’m sure testing the upper bounds of pricing is experimenting with how much you can get these people to pay, how to put the right value on it, etc.
Doug: That’s always an interesting balance, because in the beginning maybe you charge a little less than what you think you can get, and then all of a sudden you think you need to raise your prices. Hold on, do you know that? Have you tested it out that people are willing to pay that much, or are you going to find yourself in a situation? At Box, I think we were selling our Enterprise product for $35 per user per month, but when we were selling to Enterprises in the very early days, we were selling it for $5. Now they’re definitely earning the $35, but in the very beginning it was core storage, which isn’t really worth $35. It’s finding that happy medium.
Adam: You mentioned a lot of this being pattern recognition. What are..
One of the lures when I joined Intercom in 2014 was that it sold itself as a product-first company. We continue to repeat that mantra to ourselves today, and we say it to anyone who’ll listen.
We thump our chests when we say that. It’s a badge of honor – a badge of legitimacy – a badge of a new, better way of building a company. But, there’s a hidden arrogance inside that product-first mindset, and traps that await those who adopt it.
What are these traps, and how can you avoid them? This was the basis for my talk on the 2017 Inside Intercom world tour. Below you can watch me deliver that talk in London’s Roundhouse, or read on for a written account.
Brian Donohue on marketing tension in product-first companies – Intercom World Tour 2017 - YouTube
The term “product-first” is implicitly set up in contrast to what came before, which were mostly sales-driven companies. Their approach: “First we sell it, then the product team has to quickly build it.” At a glimpse, this actually makes sense – if customers are willing to shell out cash, surely that’s a great way to ensure you build only valuable stuff. However, we all know how that story ends. Big clients end up dictating the roadmap, there’s no product vision, and your product quickly turns into incoherent bloatware.
This led to an era of marketing-driven companies. They were slick, polished, and most of all, promised the moon. These companies are comfortable selling an idea that has, at best, a tangential connection to what’s actually been built. Often they try to pitch a product that hasn’t been built yet. This still happens all the time.
In the world of subscription-based business models, your product better deliver
Dan Kaplan framed marketing’s tarnished legacy this way: “Many of history’s most brilliant marketing strategies were crafted to persuade consumers to believe things that were lies, buy things they didn’t need, and do things that were actually bad for them.” Case in point: the cigarette industry.
There’s also VC blogger Fred Wilson’s pithy statement: “Marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks.” No wonder marketing has a bad name in the tech industry.
Product-first contrasts this. It’s about building a product so great that it sells itself. All you need to worry about is building something customers love. And in the world of subscription-based business models, where switching software is a whole lot easier and cheaper, your product better deliver.
In this scenario, the R&D team are viewed as the heart of the company. The success of everyone else is predicated on the success of this team.
The idea of a product-first company isn’t exactly new. As Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald once said, “We know from our history that while promotions may win quarters, innovation wins decades.” Similarly, James Dyson, of vacuum cleaner fame, would tell employees, “Focus on the product. Everything else will follow.”
The four traps facing product teams
New idea or not, we at Intercom are still big believers in the product-first philosophy, so this post isn’t written to tell you that product-first is a mistake. It is, however, a philosophy that comes with hidden traps. Here’s how our product team at Intercom has pulled ourselves out of them – hopefully with only a few minor flesh wounds to show for it.
Implicit in a product-first mindset is the belief that the best product always wins. On many product teams, this is what drives us.
This optimistic view of the product world is relatively new, and I think it’s directly attributable to the ascent of Apple. Fifteen years ago Apple had laptops and a desktop OS that was miles ahead of its competition, Windows. It also had measly market share, and few of us early Apple fans thought we’d ever see the day when Apple products would be the incumbent. Back then, the better product was almost always the underdog product. Fast forward through the iPod and then the iPhone, and seemingly overnight your CEO and non-techy friends and family suddenly had good product taste.
Google’s search engine is a similar story. At first it was just in-the-know techies who used it; now virtually everyone does. But these examples are exception, not the rule.
In technology, fast followers are really fast. Just ask Snapchat.
Let’s look at another absolutely dominant product: Salesforce. I genuinely haven’t talked to a single person who really likes using their product or speaks enthusiastically about it, yet it’s viewed as absolutely essential to sales teams. Salesforce is like the modern day equivalent of Microsoft Office in the ’90s: Everyone uses it. Few people like it.
If you want to continue living in an optimistic world where the best product always wins, remember this: even if you do genuinely have a superior product, and your customers know it, your competition will quickly follow. In technology, fast followers are really fast. Just ask Snapchat. In their IPO filing they explained that their competitive advantage was a “consistent velocity of product innovation.” They planned to innovate so fast and so successfully that no one would catch them. Sounds easy enough, right? That is high risk. Facebook may be huge, but they are damn nimble when they’re copying you.
Believing the best product always wins leads us directly to the second trap: being willfully naive about marketing. We fell headfirst into this trap at Intercom.
Matt Hodges, originally our Director of Product Marketing, was the first Intercom hire with the actual word “marketing” in his title. In his LinkedIn message trying to recruit Matt, our CEO Eoghan gushed, “The product almost completely sells itself. We’ve spent nothing on sales and marketing.” Product-first was held up as a badge of honor.
But Eoghan also said, “The next step-change in growth for the company will come from explaining to the world what we’re building and why.” This approach makes sense – establish product-market fit first, then start to push the pedal on sales and marketing.
Delivery dates do matter
The problem was that this willful ignorance of marketing had already seeped into us on the product team. Though Matt had a very influential voice, the marketing function itself didn’t. Moreover, our product team was slow to adapt to working with a marketing team. We were guilty of giving late handovers to the marketing team, and I use “handovers” to really mean there was almost no collaboration. Sometimes we were setting a feature live with no heads up at all to marketing. It was an afterthought.
For a while we didn’t give marketing any delivery dates. “We’ll ship it when it’s ready!” we’d say. Then marketing said they basically couldn’t function without real delivery dates, so we gave dates a try.
We consistently, and often wildly, missed those dates. For example, when we launched our help center, we initially promised it in April 2016, then July, then September. It wasn’t released until December. Imagine that, a product team who sucks at delivering on a date they promised! We were that team.
As a result, Matt gave an internal talk to the R&D team in hopes of addressing the product’s team naiveté about marketing. Matt explained that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of marketing’s role. Marketing isn’t a single team. In fact, it’s an umbrella term for a bunch of teams, each with different set of core skills: demand gen, comms, content, events, product marketing, product education and brand design.
Our naiveté about marketing meant that we didn’t think dates really mattered. We had zero credibility when we promised anything, and this created a one-way tension between product and marketing.
For far too long, the product team wasn’t even aware of this tension; meanwhile, marketing was fighting an uphill battle. Our product team’s willful naiveté had a real cost – we were making it difficult for other folks in the company to do their job.
Marketing has a way with words
Our marketing naiveté, however, went much deeper than deadlines. Back in 2015 we made Intercom real time, which meant messages were sent instantly, and we now could compete against “live chat” products. I wrote a big, long blog post for the launch, very modestly titled “Live chat was great but now it’s history.”
You can’t introduce something new without framing it in today’s terms
Live chat is broken, I said. It’s based on an antiquated phone-call model. You have to wait around for someone to answer. Hang up and it’s gone forever. It’s only synchronous and it’s fleeting.
Our version was modeled on modern messaging, It could be real time, but it could seamlessly move to asynchronous, and back again, just like WhatsApp or iMessage. The live chat model is dead, the messaging model is the future. It was a solid product proposition, or so I thought.
What did we see when we look at our marketing page on launch day? Live chat was mentioned everywhere. It was in the heading, the navigation, even the URL. It’s like the marketing team was completely contradicting the product team.
Matt gently pointed out that there were more than 100,000 global monthly searches for “live chat software,” and basically nothing for “asynchronous messaging.”
If people are looking for live chat software, that’s what we need to tell them we have. You can’t introduce something new without framing it in today’s terms. So while the product team focuses on the future, and builds bridges to that future, the marketing team needs to get potential customers to the bridge. Sometimes that means using the exact phrase you’re trying to kill.
This discrepancy isn’t a good thing in itself, but at least now we have a proper two-way tension. And that is a good thing, because now we can start asking much better questions of both our product and marketing approach.
Product-first folks have a tendency to become product-purists, and with that comes a belief that anything done for marketing purposes is sullied and tarnished. Product purists view marketing as separate and independent from their precious product creation. They think, “build it, and they will come.”
Implicit here is that the product team builds things from a pure motivation, whereas marketing wants things built for the wrong reason. In reality both are working to the same end – building something useful for people, and explaining and convincing them that it is useful, so that they actually use it.
The product-purist mindset ignores that a story needs to guide your product decisions. As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
This might sound obvious, but it isn’t. Product people, by default, don’t think this way – particularly not after we’ve sweated and stressed through bringing a feature to life.
If you haven’t already, read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman’s work proves that the human need for narrative is overpowering. It’s how we convince ourselves of what we do and what we buy. It’s not rational. Ignore this truth at your own peril. On the product team, particularly in our early days, we did just that. We had a product-purist mindset.
Most good companies impose real pressure to keep shipping, and in that environment it’s easy to ship just half of a story. That’s a shame. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose sight of the story that should be driving what you’re building.
This became apparent when redesigning our Messenger in 2016. We designed new expanded profiles for teammates in the Messenger, which had a deceptively complex interaction. These profiles really seemed like a ‘nice to have,’ so we scoped them out.
It was ¾ of the way through project before I started thinking about the story. Our mission statement is “make business personal”, so it was a no brainer that part of the story of our new Messenger needs to be that it’s the most personal.
Suddenly, it was blindingly obvious: Of course we have to scope in those expanded profiles. They embody the mission. Knowing the story made the decision an easy one. It was just a very late decision.
In 2017, we created an explicit place in our process for the story: the external pitch for the project, which needs to be drafted right after the problem statement. Even more importantly, alongside an effort to get better at scoping smaller, we’ve actually said that you can scope features in if they’re required for the story. We’re simultaneously trying to scope down to bare essentials when it comes to that first beta, while leaving in what’s required for the story.
Forgetting the importance of the story is yet another trap. In our experience, you have to forcefully inject the story into your process; otherwise, it will dwindle down to afterthought.
When we think about this chasm between product and marketing, it’s easy to forget that great product people are often natural marketers, and vice versa.
Although we had no formal marketing team in Intercom’s early days, marketing was actually alive and well. We were punching way above our weight from very early on with our blog, thanks to regular contributions from our co-founder Des Traynor. He knew how important the blog was in helping get initial traction. Meanwhile, our CEO, Eoghan, drove the content and design of the marketing site. Marketing was happening; it just wasn’t acknowledged.
A great example of this is what surely became the most copied part of Intercom. Not something from inside our product, but something straight off the homepage. This illustration…
This “old-way vs the new-way” concept – a messy bunch of applications tangled together on the left – spread like wildfire among SaaS company homepages. It seemed like every week we were seeing new copycat examples of this illustration.
As your company grows, think about optimizing for the right tensions
Why did this illustration resonate so much? Because in just a couple seconds customers could create a mental model of the value of Intercom. This concept of bundling and simplifying simultaneously captured a current frustration and a hope for a better place. It told a story, a story that’s actually hard to tell in words, and it told it visually in a way that sticks in your head. That is skillful marketing. And where did it come from? Eoghan sketched the initial concept. He was really our marketer-in-chief too.
The story that Des and Eoghan helped shape – this narrative around our product – gave us a ton of breathing room. People became customers, because they believed in our long-term vision, and that is immensely valuable in a product’s early days.
Mind the traps
The best founders naturally blend product and marketing, but in a product-first company, once you have different product and marketing teams, that natural blending gets ripped apart. It becomes monochromatic, and you’re left with an unhealthy rift between product and marketing.
As your company grows, think about optimizing for the right tensions. If everyone always agrees, then you’ll likely be blind to your weaknesses, and if everyone always disagrees, it’s really hard to make progress.
Don’t hire marketing people who just try to tell a story around whatever product decided to build. Marketing should be fighting for a better story, which often means more scope. Meanwhile, product should be fighting to get a smaller product to customers faster, to make sure what they’re building actually solves the problem.
Both sides are fighting to build a product that has real value and actually gets used.
Where does this leave us? Product-first isn’t itself misguided. But, if you are adopting it as a philosophy, remember to watch out for the traps sitting in front of you:
The belief that the best product always wins
A willful naiveté to the value of marketing
A product-purist mindset
Forgetting that the story drives human decisions. Good product is compelling product, and to be compelling, you need a story.
Hire people who will expose this tension – people who will lean into the tension and embrace the dissent. The world doesn’t need product purists. The world needs great products that actually get used and can make their little dent in the universe.
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Technology firms have a long and storied history with commercials. Just reading that sentence you’re probably already thinking about half-time Super Bowl commercials. Or annoying YouTube pre-rolls that leave you puzzled as to what the company actually does.
In fact there’s a whole genre of tech company videos that are so clichéd – fast edits, shiny happy people, repeated lines of script, emotional cues and images of bakers (think about it) – it’s become easy to poke fun at them. Why does creative advertising have to be so hard?
Earlier this year, Intercom decided to run an integrated marketing campaign that would speak to the value we can bring to sales and marketing teams. Our Demand Generation, Product Marketing and Brand Design teams collaborated to produce the messaging and our Brand Design team brought it to life. You might have seen our billboards on Route 101 in San Francisco, our digital signage at the airport in Austin, Texas or the display ads we ran on properties around the web.
The most recent element of the campaign were our video ads. Obviously, we didn’t run them as TV commercials but we took inspiration from TV’s 24-hour shopping networks. Embracing that “shitty-good aesthetic” led Kyle, one of our brand designers, to believe we could produce the commercials entirely in-house.
Which the Brand Design team did – soup to nuts. The voices you hear are Carly, one of our producers and Dani, one of our designers. Chelsea, our copywriter, was the hand model for the ouija video, while Liz, another designer featured in the rolodex ad. And as well as sourcing all the props, our studio manager, Jason, also acted in the bulk your button commercial.
If you want some inspiration for creating your own in-house ads, Kyle gives a glimpse into the process in this Twitter thread. In the meantime, here’s the results of our own efforts:
Know what makes your customers really click? - YouTube
When faced with a problem or new process at work, most people usually don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they look for patterns and frameworks that are widespread and valuable.
A common challenge for many teams is how to run retrospectives. There are plenty of solutions, and one of them is Start, Stop, Continue – a framework to structure a retrospective for a team, career or project.
For example, at the end of a sprint, you think about what else you should do, what you should stop doing and you should continue to do. Or at your performance review, you might wonder what you should start doing to get a promotion, what is blocking you and what you are currently doing that works well. Start, Stop, Continue can be an actionable, motivational and straightforward way to critically think about how you are working.
Experimenting with your retrospectives
I experiment a lot with retrospectives, usually mixing different exercises that share the same goal but differ in structure. Recently, during a discussion about what else my team could start doing, I heard a bold statement that starting new things is less important than continuing what’s successful. When I reflect on that, I must say that I fully agree.
Start, Stop, Continue allows you to kick off a retro session motivated and energized with a head full of ideas of what else you could be doing. If you think about your career growth by beginning with what you should start doing, you instinctually ask yourself, “What else should I do to get promoted? What else should I do to get a director role?” You want to take actions, invest and get a profit.
But I’ve always felt that there was a problem with this technique. Every time I use it, I feel overwhelmed with amount of things we should start doing. All these ideas easily make me feel I’m not doing a good job and missing so many opportunities. The fact is the order of Start, Stop, Continue is broken. The best sessions should begin with Continue, progress through Stop, and finish on Start.
The best order – Continue, Stop, Start
Continue shows what you or your team are doing best. What is the real foundation of your success? Asking what your team should keep doing highlights the positive things that are deep in the culture of your organization that are necessary for future success.
Asking what your team should keep doing highlights the positive things that are necessary for future success
To grow sustainably, either as a team or a career, you need to have a strong foundation, and you need to keep focus on it. Begin your retrospective with this focal point to align everyone with what you are doing great, what is essential and what you can’t trade off when under pressure.
Stop highlights the things you may not even be aware of that are blocking your full potential. One common example is meetings. You might be a huge help to a department other than yours and it usually works well but it potentially blocks you from being more focused on your most impactful projects at the moment.
Sometimes you might think that there is nothing to stop and that everything is essential. Well, almost always that’s not true. Go through as everything you and your team are doing and challenge it all.
Start is usually where you would begin a retrospective, but I recommend that you end with it instead. Every new thing to start doing means that you need to make a trade-off. You can potentially distract yourself or unknowingly stop doing something that is core to how you or your team works. What would you stop in order to start this particular item? How does it impact everything you want to continue to do (i.e. the foundations of your success)?
In the engineering world, one of the things that a lot of engineers would like to start doing is taking on tech debt or delivering something well scoped that they think is reasonable to ship. However, working on these things always means you need to say stop to doing something else. You can try hard to not drop any ball and still deliver. In the background though, you will need to stop doing something less measurable, like leadership, that can impact your career.
On the other hand, starting something new is an excellent way to learn. Be open to new things, but question if this particular thing is the most impactful of all the things you can do.
How to balance actions and make trade-offs
Almost always when there is something your team has decided to start doing, a trade-off will need to be made. It’s vital to be deliberate when starting new things. It’s tempting to add one more thing into your schedule, but you should make sure you understand the consequences.
Start with expectations
To make informed trade-offs, you need to clearly understand the expectations, both for your team and your career. Ask yourself these questions:
What does your department or organization expect from your team?
What do team members expect from the team?
What are the definitions of your current and next role?
If you can’t answer these questions, the whole exercise is biased and almost doomed to failure. It will be driven only by current biases, without long-term objective.
A few months ago during a retrospective I pushed the team to start using Github projects as a way to track our execution. Everyone was supposed to create tasks, describe them and own their lifecycle in the Github project. It was totally biased by my experience in more process-heavy companies and the fact that I wasn’t used to Intercom culture yet. It took time and distracted my team from their work just to do the same thing they do in our morning standups. Moreover, it impacted our flexibility when working on ambiguous product problems while a lot of things were changing. Reflecting that back to Github was a nightmare.
What we should have done was to highlight our team expectations on moving fast and shipping great product. Therefore what we needed to do was continue our standup rituals and find ways to improve them. Starting to use a tool that was not crafted for our needs did not help meet our expectations and instead, confused and negatively impacted the team.
Focus on impact
If your team decides to start doing something new, you should ask your team, “What is most impactful thing to start doing that aligns with our expectations?” If you’re evaluating your personal goals, what is the most impactful new thing to focus on for your career? You can do a thousand small things that won’t give you much progress as one key project.
Overall, Start, Stop, Continue is an excellent way to think retrospectively, though not the only one. When using this particular technique, remember to consider what order makes the most sense for you and your team and to make sure that everyone is aligned on what the labels mean. Don’t underestimate Continue – this is the most important piece to understand.
Last, but not least: frameworks are constructed to help solve common problems. But not every problem is the same and therefore, you shouldn’t rely on pre-crafted frameworks without considering whether they’re useful for your current circumstances. Don’t reject a framework if it doesn’t work immediately, but also don’t accept it blindly. Consider adapting a framework to suit your current needs.
If this sounds like the sort of environment that you would enjoy, we are actively hiring – check out our openings.