Can PLG beat Salesforce?
July 13, 2023
Product-led growth has come to nearly every corner of productivity tooling. That is, every corner except for arguably the world’s largest software category: CRM.
CRM remains a top-down purchase where implementation is a process and where the lion’s share of the market is dominated by decades-old players. The case for disruption essentially writes itself.
Of course, many have tried or are trying. There’s Pipedrive in the pipeline management space (exited to Vista Equity at a $1.5B valuation) and HubSpot’s free CRM. Monday.com played up their sales CRM product in its latest earnings call, claiming that it’s already been adopted by 5,000+ accounts. Many folks give up on off-the-shelf tools and stitch together Airtable and Notion with hot glue and a prayer.
One emerging entrant I’ve been tracking is Attio, which emerged in March 2023 with a fresh $23.5M Series A. The day after announcing their funding news, Attio rose to #1 product of the day on Product Hunt, garnering 1,442 upvotes. That doesn’t happen much in the staid world of CRM.
I caught up with founders Nicolas Sharp (CEO) and Alexander Christie (CTO) about Attio’s growth journey and unconventional approach. We covered how they built a PLG product from scratch, what gave them the conviction that Attio was ready for self-service, and why they chose freemium pricing.
The early stages: building a PLG product from scratch
Prevailing wisdom is to ship products as quickly as possible, find the gaps, and expand from the MVP as you learn from customers. Nick and Alex went the opposite way. They built Attio for three years (!) before being ready for a public launch.
The pair were inspired by the stories of folks like Airtable and Figma who made big upfront investments to get great products to market. And they fundamentally believed that approach was necessary if they wanted to make a dent in a market as large as CRM (estimated TAM: $50 billion).
Nick underscored that they weren’t building in isolation. He tried to be very deliberate about Attio’s ideal customer profile (ICP) and choice of design partners. It was hard to convince these early users to take a leap of faith on an untested product, but the Attio founders aimed to win folks over by putting in the hours.
“As an early stage startup, you don’t always have a lot of leverage. But what you can do is work harder and go above and beyond. We went absolutely beyond with super unscalable processes like weekly check-in calls with people who don’t pay for the product or free data consulting to migrate a customer’s data from another CRM.”
– Nicolas Sharp
It’s worth noting that the co-founders did pivot along the way. Nick and Alex first built Fundstack, a CRM specifically for VCs, in 2017. They initially believed that the CRM opportunity was in providing a universal solution and figured they’d be in a better position to do that if they focused on one specific industry. The team got to the point where they had an early set of customers with a high ACV, low volume model.
However, they began to be flooded with different feature requests from early VC customers. The truth was, there wasn’t a single universal CRM customer, even within a single industry. So why not go bigger?
From there, the pair made the pivot. There was even a six month period when the team “kept the lights on” for the VC product while building Attio in their spare time. But once they had a viable initial prototype, Nick and Alex shut down the old project and transferred customers to Attio one by one.
Pre-launch: gaining conviction that Attio was ready for self-service
I asked Nick and Alex what signals they looked at to gear up for a public launch.
Their north star KPI was the daily active user (DAU) to monthly active user (MAU) ratio. It helped the Attio team understand the product’s stickiness and how many people actually wanted to use it. “If a user hates a tool, they’ll cram their usage into one short burst, whereas if they love a product, they’ll engage in small bursts throughout the day,” said Alex.
One year before launch, Attio’s product was still in closed beta and the team hadn’t yet ever sold to customers who they hadn’t spoken with before. Over that year they steadily expanded the design partner group, eventually adding around 5 to 10 per month.
In that time they incrementally opened up self-serve capabilities. The initial onboarding was 100% white glove with Attio configuring the account, onboarding the customer, migrating data, and so on. Eventually those would become features and Attio could send the onboarding before the call, then check in on how it went. Just before they launched, Attio was sending people links to sign up and self-serve.
Nick and Alex noticed their activation rates were trending in the right direction, it was getting easier for people to adopt the product, and more people were coming inbound asking to use Attio. There was a tipping point where there was more interest than Attio could serve. Still, they were never going to be 100% launch ready and needed to make a judgment call.
“It was uncomfortable. You’ve poured everything into it. Releasing a product publicly after all that work will always be uncomfortable. We got OK with the fact that it would never be as good as we wanted it to be.” – Nicolas Sharp
Monetization: designing pricing and packaging
Attio began testing their pricing before they even launched.
They “very unscientifically” chose an initial price, looking at an average of where the competition was, and didn’t put a ton of science in it in the beginning.
As they were getting ready to launch, they created a map of the lifecycle of a target customer and looked at how to align value and usage over that lifecycle. The lifecycle map informed pricing so that it made sense for early stage companies to adopt Attio and then the pricing would scale with both the value Attio was providing and the success of their business.
“It was very important that Attio was a ‘day 0’ product. When you’re starting a company, you download Slack, get your Gmail account, download Notion. Normally people defer the CRM buying decision until later. We wanted people not to defer that because CRM can add a lot of value early,” said Nicolas.
At first, Attio experimented with a 14-day free trial and only had one price point. Today they have a free tier – aimed at ‘day 0’ startups – along with three paid editions that a customer can grow into as they scale.
Looking back, the Attio team regrets not building out a self-service mechanism or introducing a free plan fast enough. “We could have learned a lot faster about our customer base and executed even quicker on our product development,” Alex reflected.
Launch: attracting the first 1,000 users
“Initially, there’s a lot of outreach,” Nick told me. Nick and team would look for people posting about CRM issues they were having, then ping people directly to see if they were interested in a different approach.
This had a flywheel effect where early design partners were passionate about the product market and were keen to refer others. “It was all about finding people who we wanted the product to work for, then giving them a tailored experience.”
For a long time, Attio didn’t have a website. Outreach worked well enough without it. (Yes, this is a PLG product…)
As Attio opened up their beta, subsequent users came through word of mouth. They didn’t focus on paid acquisition until after launching in March, and are only now beginning to experiment.
Still, there were things Nick and Alex did to purposefully accelerate word of mouth. One was posting about feature updates on Twitter frequently, as well as through email with customers and their waitlist.
“We posted even the smallest stuff because every update counts. The more you inform, the more ‘compound interest’ you create.” – Alexander Christie
Attio’s launch was their first big test of scaling user acquisition. They leaned into launching on Product Hunt—and timed the launch to happen one day after their funding announcement.
Product Hunt had a captive audience in Attio’s ICP: early-stage startups. Attio was also primed to benefit from this channel given how much compound interest they had created among the early customer base.
Reflecting on Attio’s Product Hunt launch and becoming #1 product of the day, Nick believes it worked well for two reasons. First, the launch event was a big rallying point for the entire company. Attio set the launch date in stone and didn’t shift it. Second, Attio was able to concentrate attention at the same time, pairing Product Hunt with the fundraise announcement as well as a bunch of other social channels.
He noted that they had invested in brand and communications prior to launch, which is unusual for an early-stage company.
“Usually investing in brand and comms happens around Series B or C. However, in a crowded market like CRM, differentiation is so important. We didn’t want to be perceived as ‘just another CRM’ because we’re not.” – Nicolas Sharp
Advice for other founders
The pair wanted to share two parting thoughts for founders thinking about building and launching a PLG startup.
- PLG doesn’t mean stop speaking to customers. “Even with all the data we have now from our self-service growth, we probably get the most valuable, qualitative data from speaking with our customers.”
- Behind every PLG data point is a human being. “You always need to empathize with your customers, figure out their journey, and try to help get the most value for them, even if you’re not talking to them all.”