A Recap of OpenView’s 2019 Product Led Growth Summit

OpenView’s fourth annual Product Led Growth Summit took place last week in San Francisco. This is the event for true PLG practitioners. It’s not a place where you only hear about founder success stories as they drove towards a successful IPO (though many of the speakers have had successful IPOs). This is a conference where you hear about the nuances of Slack’s marketing motion, the key steps in building Notion’s sales and customer success teams and the challenges of creating a culture where employees feel the freedom to experiment (and fail) quickly. It’s an event with hands-on advice about how to work through your business’ specific challenges in OpenView’s ‘Growth Lounge.’ And it’s an event where the best PLG operators come together to learn from those who have been there before.

This year, over 600 people attended to learn not only from the speakers, but from each other. Whether you were one of the attendees or couldn’t make it, I’ve rounded up some of the best insights from the day.

The PLG Movement is Building

Product led growth is driving today’s fastest-growing SaaS companies. Though product-led tactics have been used for years, more holistic strategies and frameworks are only now starting to take off. What started as a single public product-led company in 2012 is now 21 public product-led companies and over $200B in enterprise value. You can see the growth of the PLG movement in the success of the companies who adopt it most effectively.

 

Blake Bartlett, Partner at OpenView, kicked off the day talking about how we are entering the third era of software. First was the CIO Era, where sales led the go-to-market motion and decisions for on-premise solutions ran all the way up to the Chief Information Officer. Sales cycles were slow, contracts were large and deployment took months (if not quarters or years).

Next came the Executive Era. Here, marketing led go-to-market initiatives where they created content and targeted the functional executive as the core decisionmaker. This high-velocity sales motion, created by inbound marketing and inside sales teams, led to the growth of the next wave of software companies.

We are now entering the End User Era, where individuals drive the software decisions for most companies. Workers are empowered to solve their daily challenges with easy to understand software that is quick to get up and running. They recommend the software to their boss as part of the sales process. Product leads the go-to-market motion and self-service dominates the distribution channel. The End User Era is here. PLG is how you adapt.

Customers Come First

The biggest theme throughout the day was this: customers are the source of all success for a business. Without customers, you don’t have a business. We were lucky enough to have Tom Hale, President of SurveyMonkey, on stage (on SurveyMonkey’s 20th birthday no less). He said that the key to longevity is to simply talk to your customers. If you choose a problem that matters and you keep talking to your customers, they will help you solve the problem. The solution may change over time, but your business will continue.

Figma’s Chief Customer Officer, Amanda Kleha, discussed the importance of building vibrant communities for users, both online and off. Figma cultivates local user groups around the world, nurtures users with community marketing efforts and actively engages with users online as they provide both product feedback and real-life customer stories.

Serial Entrepreneur, Hiten Shah, boils success down to customer obsession. Everyone focuses on growth, but without retention, it’s nearly impossible to grow. The bucket is simply too leaky. Retention is the result of customer obsession. Hiten breaks retention down to three time periods and recommends asking different key questions within each.

      • Short-term retention: takes place within the first week with a focus on why some users are not using the product after signing up
      • Mid-term retention: takes place between weeks two and four with a focus on how to get the product to become part of a user’s habit
      • Long-term retention: takes place after Week Four and seeks to add so much value to a user’s life that the user would be disappointed if the product no longer existed

By relentlessly focusing on the user and asking them the right questions along the way, you can build strong and enduring businesses.

Productize your CSM Touchpoints to Remove Friction

Companies usually think about their customer success and sales teams in the same fashion–working to make users successful. Sales teams are working to make prospects successful while customer success teams are working to make current customers successful. But, Jesse Miller, Director of Product Management at Dropbox, recommends that the product team also work closely with the CS team to find the points in the product that cause friction for the user.

Product and growth teams work to ensure that as many users as possible activate and find value within the product. At its core, activation is about making the product intuitive and creating a feedback loop between product and customer success. Not to mention, this is a great way to gain insights about where your product is less intuitive for your users.

David Apple, Head of Customer Success and Sales at Notion, worked with his product team to ensure that data is consistently tagged across all parts of the business. By ensuring that his teams are speaking the same language as product, marketing and other teams at Notion, they’re able to quickly aggregate data, identify trends and make informed decisions. This allows the insights from his teams to quickly flow back into the product team for roadmap prioritization.

Focus on the Experimentation Process, Not the Outcomes

Many speakers rely on experimentation to give them the best insights about their products and users, but one speaker stood out with his focus on experimentation. Steve Sloan, the current CEO of Contentful and former CPO/CMO of Twilio SendGrid, talked about focusing on the process, rather than the outcome. When you run a lot of experiments, you’ll, by nature, have a lot of failures. If you focus only on the outcome, that failure is difficult to live with. But, if you focus on the process and on learning, that failure can be celebrated.

Hiten Shah focused on breaking projects into manageable pieces and taking small, but quick steps. Hiten talked about “starting with Step 1” and choosing a small hypothesis to test first. Don’t move past step one until you validated it or found another path to continue down. The key is to run small tests, but run them very quickly. Eventually, you may have a complete product or feature. But, start with Step 1 and keep learning.

Stephen Deasy, Head of Engineering at Atlassian, also focused on the process, but from an engineering and data infrastructure perspective. Stephen has worked with companies to move from gut-led organizations to data-informed organizations and finally, data-driven organizations.

Stephen’s most memorable piece of advice was to “stay skeptical.” Confirmation bias is common when you deal with data, so it’s important to keep testing your assumptions and processes. Even when everything appears to be working, you can have bugs in the system. It’s best to periodically stress best your assumptions and data systems, so that when an emergency does arise, you can be confident in having the best data to make decisions.

Don’t Forget About Brand

We’ve seen a lot of PLG brands gaining notoriety in recent years. Usually, we think of them as viral products, driven by simple onboarding and word-of-mouth recommendations. However, marketing and brand play a large role in this go-to-market motion. When end users are empowered to solve their own challenges, they need to remember your brand in the moments when they are experiencing pain.

Steve Sloan, of Contentful, and Kelly Watkins, former VP of Marketing at Slack, both talked about how user experience starts the moment a person starts typing into a search bar. SEO, SEM, brand and content are all critical. This brings product and marketing together.

Kelly specifically talked about how the marketing model is changing and how companies need to react. Marketing and sales have always been tasked with moving users from awareness of your product, to consideration of purchase, to intent to purchase. This generally started by driving awareness towards a lead capture. After that, a new set of marketing and sales tactics kick in to increase consideration and intent.

At this stage, awareness, consideration and intent all happen at the same time. They take place over time as a person first hears about your product from a friend or co-worker, then reads content and researches more deeply. Eventually, they experience the pain that your product solves and go directly to your website. If the typical sales touch motion happens, those demos and conversations all take place after a user has signed up for and tried the product.

Context is Everything

The PLG Summit was a day jam-packed with some of the best practitioners in SaaS. They’ve been there before and have tackled the same product challenges you’re currently facing. Even so, it’s important to remember that they solved the problems for their product, in their market, at a particular point in time. Kelly Watkins emphasized this in talking about Slack. Context is everything–the more context you can add to your challenges, the more likely you are to respond effectively. There is no single playbook for success. You cannot simply choose the tactics that have worked for other products and assume that they will work for you. It’s important to be yourself (as a product) and to apply the lessons from those who have been there before to your product’s own strengths and your market’s specific opportunities.

Product led growth isn’t about a set playbook or specific tactics. It’s about caring about your user and showing them the value of your product quickly and easily. The End User Era is here. PLG is how you adapt.

Director, Business Operations
OpenView
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