May Habib (Writer): On Product, Distribution, and Lessons Learned As a Second-Time Founder

April 21, 2022

Most first-time SaaS founders are obsessed with building their product. It makes sense—a successful product is a qualifying criteria for startup success. But if you ask a second-time founder what keeps them up at night, it’s distribution. 

“Once you’ve had the experience of building something people want, you’ve got that muscle, you’ve got that confidence, the second time around, you’re a bit more ambitious and you’re thinking, how can I build something people want and how can I get it into their hands that much faster?” said May Habib, CEO and founder of Writer, an AI writing assistant. 

May, who is a second-time founder, recently joined OpenView’s Blake Bartlett on the BUILD podcast, where they chatted about distribution, product-market fit, and what it takes to build a successful business, not just a functional product.  

Defining distribution

Before Writer, May was a co-founder of Qordoba, another AI writing assistant. As a second-time founder, May said she has been hyper-focused on distribution: “From first principles with Writer, we have been thinking about how we get this into people’s hands really fast.”

Distribution is a broad term, and it’s difficult for many first-time founders to really understand what it means in context. May breaks down the definition into three parts: 

  1. How people find your product
  2. How they get value from your product
  3. How users tell other people about your product

Addressing each of these aspects provides businesses with a holistic approach to distribution that doesn’t sacrifice product quality—if anything, it enhances it. This is a true reflection of May’s approach to business as a second-time founder. The question of prioritizing product or distribution is a trick-question. It’s not simply one or the other. At Writer, May said, product and go-to-market go together. 

Aligning product and distribution

Building a product is the obvious first step for any SaaS business, no matter how many startups a founder has under their belt. The difference in approach to building a product as a first-time versus second-time founder is an understanding of what comes next. 

Being product-obsessed as a first-time founder is focusing on the question: “Does this thing work?” The second time around, however, founders know that the question needs to be immediately followed up with “Will I be able to get it into people’s hands?”

At the end of the day, this shift in mindset is the natural result of gaining entrepreneurial experience, being more efficient, and having a better understanding of the business world. 

May knows firsthand how it feels for an obsession with building product to expand and encompass distribution as well. At Writer, she took a holistic look at go-to-market by starting with the question of distribution. What it takes, she explained, is connecting your product’s value proposition to your customers’ needs. Then, you work backwards.

“When people are looking at a blank page, whether it’s to write a help article or a piece of collateral, there’s actually a tremendous amount of intelligence behind the cursor in terms of what the company wants you to say, what you and your colleagues have written before, and what will impact your users,” said May of the value of the Writer product.

Writer Product Image

“So with that being the vision, we can work backwards to get broad distribution for a product like this. We thought about those three principles: How will people find us? How will they get value? And then how will they tell others?”

Designing a product with jobs-to-be-done

In terms of executing on product, May described the benefit of using a jobs-to-be-done framework. This is an approach to development that is based on understanding the end user’s specific goal, or “job”, that they are looking to complete through usage of your product. 

“Especially if you are PLG and you want to build an inbound engine that’s driven organically and by SEO, you have to think about jobs-to-be-done first. Because if you’re not thinking about the problem you’re solving through the words and the lens that your users are looking for your product or a thing that solves their problem as your product does, then you’re just going to get it wrong,” warned May.  

May Habib, Writer LinkedIn Post

Understanding how your users are framing the problem your product is solving in their own mind helps with both product and distribution—it informs what features and capabilities you need to have, and also where your users are and how they’ll be looking for you. 

“People don’t want an AI writing assistant, they want better writing,” said May, listing Writer as a prime example. “You really have to understand how your specific audience, your specific users, think about the problem—the words that they use—because that is going to feed into all of the acquisition you do.”

Tracking distribution with holistic metrics

May believes that success at a distribution-focused company looks like an entire collection of key metrics moving forward together. At Writer, the metrics used to measure distribution span the entire funnel and engagement. These metrics, categorized by acquisition channel, include:

  • Overall traffic
  • Visit to trial conversion
  • Trial to activated conversion
  • Activated to paid conversion
  • Daily active users (DAU)
  • Churn

And this set of metrics isn’t owned by just the growth team—in fact, everyone across the company needs to align. This relates back to what May identified as a core philosophy of a distribution-focused business: When everything works, it should all work together. 

What that means is a spike in any one metric in isolation won’t necessarily signal that an experiment worked. May used a hypothetical at Writer to demonstrate her point: “If we had 2,000 Chrome extension installs, but they didn’t become active users, or if we improved visit to trial, but it tanked the Chrome extension install rate, which is for us key to distribution, then those were failed experiments.”

“It’s much more holistic and much more integrated than in a non-PLG business. All of our experiments and work is evaluated against that whole funnel,” May explained. “We’ve got targets down the whole funnel and the goal week-over-week is to move all the numbers together.” 

Where to start with metrics

For leaders looking for distribution-focused metrics for their own businesses, May identified OpenView’s Product Benchmarks report as a great place to start. Regardless of the specific metrics you select, May believes that in order to accurately measure distribution, the numbers need to address the following questions: 

  • Are you growing the top of your funnel?
  • Are users doing what they need to be doing in the product?
  • Are they telling people about it?

With such a holistic approach to distribution measurement, it is hard to identify a “north star metric” that rises above the rest. At Writer, May explained that instead of using a north star, they use the concept of “first among equals”. In their case, it’s daily active users (DAU). But even then, she recognizes that it’s a number that loses value without appropriate context. 

“If we have off-the-charts DAU, but a user base that’s not growing, that’s not inviting, that’s telling us something about our go-to-market and our product-market fit,” she said, “So DAU is definitely first among equals, but it is in the context of a healthy, growing business.”

The journey to product-market fit

“I don’t think there could be a more interesting game to play on this planet than getting to product-market fit with a team of people you respect and love,” May shared. 

The first step to determining product-market fit is building an understanding of what that means to your business. And there’s no simple one-sentence definition. It takes doing your research to understand how others solved for product-market fit. The good news is that the knowledge is out there—thanks to the go-to-market professionals who are transparent and generous in sharing these metrics on what enabled their companies to grow.

Unfortunately, you aren’t going to hit one particular metric that tells you you’ve arrived at product-market fit. At Writer, May said they have an idea of what product-market fit looks like for them on paper. To build this idea, they benchmarked the market to determine what best-in-class looks like, and evaluated their metrics based on their distribution strategy. 

Beyond that, product-market fit is something the team at Writer can feel in their bones. It looks like customers and users telling them how much they love the product, and seeing inbound leads and trial signups from word-of-mouth. 

“From the metrics, to the micro-feature requests, to people telling you how much they loved your product, and everything in between—all of that together in concert tells you that you have product market fit,” Blake summarized. “It’s almost a sense you get rather than a number that turns green on a page one day magically.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Start thinking about distribution from first principles. This means resisting the urge to get too caught up in building product. Asking distribution-related questions and work backwards from there to improve both your product and your business’s long-term success.
  2. Look at the problem your users are trying to solve through their eyes. If you want to help your users find you, you need to understand how, when, and where they’re going to be looking for your product. 
  3. Track engagement metrics and metrics from every stage of the funnel. If all the numbers are moving together, you’ll know that both your product and your distribution method are working.
  4. Take the time to understand what product-market fit means for your business. There’s no single right answer. To get a comprehensive picture of what it means and how to achieve it, you’ll need to do your homework. This means learning from professionals who’ve done it before.

Contributing Writer

Mikaela is contributing writer at OpenView. She specializes in writing articles for VC and product-led SaaS startups, and is dedicated to creating content that is both educational and unique.