On the Value and Power of Building Authentic Connections
Deciding which brilliant idea to pursue as an actual business is a big deal. I’ve launched multiple companies, and I know that when you choose to turn a vision into reality, you’re committing to investing seven to fifteen years of your life in the project. You need to set the bar pretty high to ensure you’re spending your precious time wisely.
In my experience, the most viable and successful ideas sit at the intersection of two types of innovation. On one side, there’s product-based innovation, which might be about a technological advancement or a new way to apply an existing technology. On the other side, there’s business-based innovation, which might have to do with how you go to market or a business model.
In addition to having both these kinds of innovation in play, your entire idea needs to be underpinned by a unique insight or set of insights into the market, the problem space, the customer, etc. It’s the combination of these three things—product innovation, business innovation and unique insight—that make everything hang together in a way that can support a real business.
The idea for JumpCloud presented itself in 2007 while I was working on another business. We were building a product that required substantial integration into the core authentication platform or identity provider of an organization. In the process of working on this problem, we discovered that there was only one option for handling this kind of integration: Microsoft Active Directory (AD).
Fast forward to 2013, and a lot had changed. Google Apps had captured significant market share, AWS was growing exponentially and Windows platforms were no longer the only game in town. But, despite all these transitions, AD was still the core platform for determining who had access to what. We realized we had an opportunity to create a break-out product that would give people an alternative to AD.
Why did we ultimately decide to see the idea through? We knew we could deliver product innovation in the form of shifting the core identity provider to the cloud (something that hadn’t yet been done). And we knew we could deliver business innovation by delivering the product via a freemium SaaS model (rather than AD’s contract-based on-premises model). Today, these innovations seem sort of obvious, but back then, they were bets we were willing to place based on unique insights into the market and the potential of the emerging technologies of the time.
Connecting with Customers – Building Trust
Once you have an idea for a company, you need to establish the guiding principles that will be your North Star on that journey. In JumpCloud’s case, our guiding design principle was customer-centricity.
“Customer-centric” is a common term today, but was less so when we were launching JumpCloud. Likewise, Openview hadn’t yet coined the term “product-led,” but that’s just what we were. Our focus on the customer naturally evolved into a product-led approach that sought to close the gap between customers and the value they could generate from our product.
We began by centering our design around our customer—the IT administrator. We made that persona the centerpiece for everything we did and the driver behind every decision. We put a lot of time, effort and care into learning everything we could about how the IT administrator wanted the world to work. We developed an in-depth understanding of how they wanted to evaluate and deploy software, how they preferred to engage with a business partner, how they felt about different solutions they were using, and—of course—what pressures and pain points were keeping them up at night.
We believed (and still believe) that for the relationship to work, the IT administrator has to trust in the products they choose. And we knew that trust could only be earned once the customer was able to experience the product for themselves. Sales and marketing wasn’t going to be our in with this particular audience. They didn’t want to be sold on anything, they wanted to use the product and decide for themselves.
By focusing on the reality of our target customer’s actual needs, preferences and desires, we developed a naturally product-led approach that would give IT administrators the chance to try (and hopefully fall in love with) our product. Our 10-users-free-forever offer gave a prospective customer the ability to come in and use a fully-featured version (including premium features, too) of our product for an unlimited amount of time, no strings attached. This has continued to be a winning strategy for us, all because it’s built on knowing exactly who our customer is and delivering the kind of experience they want.
Connecting Customers to Value – Giving Before You Take
Another guiding principle that came naturally to us was the idea of delivering value before you capture it. Many people still debate the value of this concept, but to us it made immediate sense.
One of our core company values is about building connections. I think about that as another way of saying we want to engage people—build bridges, help out, give more than we take. Based on this value, our main intention was just to get our product into people’s hands so that we could start delivering the value we knew was possible.
Not only did we want to deliver value before asking for anything in return, we wanted the entire process to feel completely comfortable and organic. We didn’t want our prospective buyers to ever feel pressured, manipulated or coerced. We wanted them to be fully in control of the experience and the conversation so that we could start building trust from the first interaction.
Once we got the product into their hands, we gave the IT administrators all the time and space they needed to experience the value first hand. We let the product stand on its own. Our job was mainly to make the connection, and then that would start the domino effect of trying the product, loving the product, buying the product.
Over the years, we have refined the process, mostly to eliminate as much friction as possible, but at its core, it’s still the same basic product-led principle. We just make sure the product is easy to implement, test and use across the prospect’s organization; and we give them everything they need to try it, understand it and be able to make a decision about whether it’s the right fit.
Connecting with Growth – Experimenting to Optimize
Building on this PLG foundation, we are—of course—always looking for ways to optimize the customer experience and our conversion rates. Eliminating friction in onboarding, implementation and the product itself is all core to achieving the best outcomes. This is how we help users unlock the value of our product, which is ultimately our highest priority. We know that once a user sees the value for themselves, they are that much closer to converting.
Our designated growth team is an important driver of our overall success. Their primary job is to uncover what folks are trying to do on our platform (without having to ask them directly) and find ways to make those specific tasks easier in order to shorten time to value.
The growth team uses enormous amounts of data to run a series of experiments that illuminate this crucial information. The users don’t experience any of this as experimentation; we’re not talking to them at this point. Instead, we are “speaking” to them through the product and then optimizing their journey to try and improve their outcomes.
We learn a lot through these experiments, and not always what we expect. For instance, one experiment involved reducing the amount of information we were capturing in our signup flow. Best practices dictate that you shouldn’t require too much information up front, so we eliminated some fields, expecting to see a substantial uplift in signups. Instead, we found that the original page with more fields performed better. We tested a few different flows, but the outcome was always the same, so we reverted back to the original page structure.
On the other hand, we’ve had some surprise successes, too. For instance, we created a basic checklist for getting started on our platform. We didn’t assume it would have much of an impact, but it delivered double-digit performance enhancements on almost every metric we were tracking on it. It was a massive win that we were then able to build upon by creating a series of spinoffs and offshoots that have also been very successful. It’s obvious now why that was such a big win – we were helping IT admins more quickly see value in the platform – but when we initially devised the experiment, it wasn’t clear that it would be successful.
It just goes to show that you can never assume which experiment is going to be a winner. But if you always approach the experimentation process with the customer’s best interests at heart, you’ll learn something even if the experiment doesn’t prove out your hypothesis.
Connecting to the World – Leaving it a Better Place
Building connections and delivering value isn’t just something we focus on creating in our product and delivering to our customers, it’s also a reflection of who we are as a company and as individuals within the company. We believe that the best organizations offer the people who come on board a real opportunity for personal and professional growth. At JumpCloud, we are committed to giving our people all those opportunities along with the chance to build important relationships.
Our hope is that, just like we are able to deliver a lot of value to our customers and give them more than we expect in return, we will also be able to create the kind of company that gives to its team members hopefully more than it takes in the forms of professional and personal growth. And, that’s saying something, because our people give a tremendous amount.
But, that’s the way business should be done. And that’s how relationships work. It’s kind of what we hope for all humanity—that we leave the earth a little better than how we found it. That we create a positive cycle that builds one trusting, valuable connection on top of another to make a better world.
This will be a long road, but it’s one we’ve been on all along. Some of us just didn’t realize it. Now that we know, it’s time to commit to the journey and make change together.