MongoDB’s Playbook for Breaking Into and Dominating a Market

December 2, 2020

Developer relations, or DevRel, is a critical element of any SaaS growth strategy. Done right, DevRel can deliver an almost unassailable advantage. In some cases it can create the tipping point that not only helps a startup overcome big marketing challenges, but can even steal action away from big-name incumbents.

That was the exact case for MongoDB in their early days. As a newcomer with a fresh take on the database, they needed a way into an already crowded market. DevRel played a major role in creating that entry point.

Francesca Krihely, current Senior Director, Developer Experience and Growth at Snyk, was Director of Growth Marketing at MongoDB when the company built its first developer community.

On a recent episode of the OV BUILD Podcast, OpenView Partner Blake Bartlett spoke with Francesca about that experience, as well as how MongoDB leveraged social proof to carve out their initial foothold. She also shared the two key DevRel concepts that she believes are both universal and timeless.

Listen to the episode below or scroll down to read the rest of this story.

Building a developer community from scratch

When Francesca joined MongoDB in 2011, the company was going through what she describes as an incredibly hectic and exciting phase of hyper growth. “Every three to six months, the company was completely different,” she recalled. “The scale of the company and the size of the problem you were trying to solve kept changing dramatically.”

The specific problem Francesca was focused on was developing a community marketing strategy. At the time, “community” was a proxy term for developer awareness, which was critical for MongoDB since they were attempting to make waves in an established market with some very strong incumbent competitors—brands like Oracle, Microsoft and IBM.

Related read: The Do’s and Don’ts of Marketing to Developers

In addition, MongoDB wasn’t just a newcomer—they were a newcomer pitching developers an entirely new version of the existing solution. They weren’t just trying to get in on the existing action, they were trying to convince the market to care about an entirely new way of thinking about databases.

This kind of scenario happens all the time. The Blockbuster/Netflix situation is one of the most frequently cited examples: A newcomer arrives on the scene with a better business model than the incumbent, and the incumbent doesn’t mimic the new model for fear of damaging their existing business.

“Some of the biggest players didn’t really notice MongoDB coming up,” Francesca said. “What we were building was so fundamentally different from their core offering that it took years for them to recognize us as competitors, never mind build out their own non-relational database to compete against us.”

Luckily, the team at MongoDB was not one to be intimidated by the prospect of playing in the big leagues. “Being part of the MongoDB team taught me to think big, set big goals and take steps to reach them,” Francesca said. “And that’s a particularly valuable mindset to have in developer relations and developer marketing because everything depends on how your customers use your product.”

It was also important to swing for the fences because MongoDB’s starting position in the market meant there was a heavier lift to build out a strong developer community.

To give her team’s efforts the boost they needed, Francesca’s go-to-market and community playbooks focused on social proof. “We determined early on that social proof was the most effective tool we had,” she explained. “It was our super power.”

MongoDB’s DevRel strategy involved building channels to share customer and user stories, including a lot of events.

“We determined early on that social proof was the most effective tool we had. It was our super power.”

“I think there was a month in 2011 or 2012 where we did more events than there were days in the month,” Francesca recalled. The team also did trade shows, their own conferences and other small gatherings. “We did a lot of owned events, especially for a company our size. We were able to get great crowds because we worked really hard to drive registrations and keep costs down. The strategy worked really well and helped a lot of people find us through the events as well as word of mouth from others who attended our events.”

The team also launched an ambassador program called the MongoDB Masters, which helped the brand mobilize their biggest and most credible fans to participate in events, create content, and generally drive developer awareness. And there was a meetup program that started in 10 key cities and eventually grew to include hundreds of groups.

Francesca is gratified to see that, all these years later, MongoDB continues to build on these strategies. She points to full investment from the founders as a critical part of the company’s DevRel success.

“Community was part of MongoDB’s core principles from day one,” she said. “It’s something the founders talked about with investors. The entire team was so focused on making the product better for the community and supporting community growth. That made a huge difference.”

Adapting MongoDB’s early-stage strategy for today’s market

While Francesca is proud of the community work she did at MongoDB, she doesn’t recommend that other companies try to replicate that playbook today. Times have changed, after all. And—as she pointed out—every big company that sells to developers is already running a similar play.

“The key to success is finding your blue ocean strategy,” she said. “You have to identify your first principle for growth, and then follow that thread.”

For MongoDB, the principle was the importance of social proof to their growth model. Following that thread, they were able to uncover the power of counter positioning to sell in their new way of thinking about databases and then use social proof to make their case.

Francesca acknowledged that figuring out your first principle of growth is the hardest part. But, after that, everything else tends to fall into place pretty easily.

She suggested exploring things like:

  • How you’re coming into the market
  • What helps you be successful
  • What makes you different

“The key to success is finding your blue ocean strategy. You have to identify your first principle for growth, and then follow that thread.”

As another example, she offered that one of Datadog’s first principles is their ability to integrate really well with other products: “Datadog talks a lot about how they integrate with AWS and fit really well with that market. This is smart because the AWS market is massive, and with their positioning, Datadog has the ability to go after it and eat it up.”

Understanding 2 universal concepts for winning DevRel

While the first principle for growth varies from company to company, Francesca offered two key concepts that are crucial to DevRel success regardless of the company or the specific growth principle.

The first five minutes
“The first five minutes of any developer product experience should be incredible, seamless and easy to understand,” Francesca said. “Those first five minutes need to help the user accomplish something so that they see immediate value.” She cites Slack and Dropbox as great examples of the kind of experience she’s talking about, while also acknowledging that a lot of the systems developers use are much more challenging and complex.

The silver lining is that few people in the developer space do those first five minutes really well. “There’s so much opportunity in the developer product space because building these products and making systems work together is very difficult,” Franscesa said. “So, anything you can do to make your product easier and more enjoyable to use will help you win a lot in your category.”

“The first five minutes of any developer product experience should be incredible, seamless and easy to understand”

Francesca noted that Segment is a dev-first company that does this really well. While Segment is part of the complicated data management space, they were able to win developers over quickly by starting out with an open source product called analytics.js.

As she explained, “They launched on Hacker News, and developers absolutely loved it. The fact that it was so easy to use helped drive awareness for Segment in the early days, and now they just had a $3 billion plus exit.”

Amazing documentation
“Documentation serves two purposes: They provide the prescriptive advice developers rely on to get things done, and they bridge the knowledge gap for products that are difficult to understand. If you don’t invest in your docs, you’re cutting your growth and making it much harder on yourself,” Francesca explained.

Francesca admires Auth0’s documentation for the way it’s specifically designed for developers and segmented into different programming languages. This developer-first approach makes it really easy for developers who use different languages in their applications to find exactly what they need and get started quickly.

For technical founders, she suggested curating your own library of favorite documentation so you can really dig into what you love about different documents and use that as inspiration for your own.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for the win

In the end, it all comes down to empathy.

“Empathy means putting yourself in other people’s shoes so you can see the world from their perspective,” she said. “There are a lot of tools and data you can use to gain this perspective and get a sense of how your users are thinking; taking advantage of those tools is incredibly important when you’re building a developer experience.”

And if you can tap into empathy to fuel your DevRel efforts, you have a great shot at creating a community that will help you differentiate yourself from the competition, uncover unique and unassailable growth opportunities, and become more resilient against market shifts or anything else the world might throw at you.

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Jamie is a writer, mom, and nature lover based in Ipswich, MA.