What Makes Trello Tick? Simple Strategies for Product Led Success
Whoever said that a product has to be complicated and boring to provide value or be taken seriously? No one. And yet that’s the mistaken assumption people make all the time.
After eight years leading Trello’s product team, I’ve found that keeping a product intuitive, immediately valuable for users and fun to use, is a great strategy for delivering a ton of value to customers. I would even go as far as to say that a connection between simplicity, fun and immediate value for users is what sits at the core of successful product led growth.
Straight out of school, I started my career in a very different role as a consultant and data analyst for Deloitte. My team built apps to help our clients analyze large amounts of data and pinpoint anomalous and fraudulent transactions. In this role, I learned a lot about how to work with clients, tackle new projects, communicate clearly and generally just be a professional. While I enjoyed the work, I ultimately decided that I wanted to go a bit deeper on the product side. We’d spend months understanding the project and crafting a custom app for a client. Just as we got to a place where it was really working and useful, the project would end and we’d start over from scratch with a new client. I found myself craving the experience of iterating and making the product better and better.
To bolster my resume for the transition from consulting to the world of startups, I taught myself to build iPhone apps just after Apple released their first set of developer SDKs. Throughout the learning process, I spent a lot of time on Stack Overflow (a Q&A site where developers answer each other’s questions). This activity caught the eye of Stack Overflow co-founder, Michael Pryor, and he recruited me to work at his other company, Fog Creek Software. Luck was on my side, and shortly after joining Fog Creek, we started an innovation initiative to build new products and I became one of the first two people to work on the idea that evolved into Trello. As our team grew, I found my way to into a product manager role and quickly realized that it pulled together many of the things that I loved most: solving real-world problems with code, great design and user experience, data and analytics and working closely with talented people to build great things.
After nine months, we launched Trello on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in September 2011. Just a few days after launch, we had already rocketed from a few hundred private beta users to more than 50,000 registered users. We really knew we were onto something when we spoke with some of those early users and learned just how passionate they were about what we’d built.
Since that launch, we’ve grown Trello into a product with over 35,000,000 registered users and at least one user in every country in the world. Here are some of the strategies that have helped us get there.
Product Led Basics
All along, our product led strategy at Trello has been pretty straightforward. It’s less about trickery and optimization, and more about just building something useful in a way that connects with people. Something that is simple, customizable, visual–and even fun. Something that has some personality and gives people something to talk about.
To break that down a bit, let’s start with keeping it simple. In everything we do, we aim to eliminate friction and avoid complexity. We focus on doing the basics really well and strive to smooth out every experience so we can help the user get into the product as easily as possible and deliver value to them as quickly as we can.
The most effective thing we’ve done is fine tune our onboarding process. Over the years, we’ve made sure of two things. One, that our sign-up process is as streamlined as possible; and two, that when someone signs up for Trello—whether they’re coming in cold or because someone invited them—that we demonstrate the product’s value in a way that’s immediately useful to them.
We’ve spent a lot of time working out the best ways to teach new users how to get the most out of the product. Being product led, we use the product itself to teach people how they can use it. For this to work, we have to have a clear hierarchy in our minds about which features are most important to users right away and which ones we can show off to them as they gain experience and expertise. We try to resist the temptation to overwhelm people early on by showing them everything we all have at once.
Overall, all of this is about following through on the expectations you set. You make promises on your landing page and need to deliver on those within the product. So we pay close attention to getting those basics right. We don’t overcomplicate the product and get the user to value as quickly as possible. It’s a strategy that’s worked really well for us.
Product Led Growth – The Day-to-day Perspective
Of course, at a certain point, you need to think about growth in a slightly more formal way. We have teams that focus on growth-related aspects of the product and we encourage all of our teams to adopt a growth mindset driven by attention to metrics and a willingness to experiment and test ideas. This holistic approach means that we’re constantly making small changes that help to grease the wheels of growth in subtle but meaningful ways.
From the start, we were very intentional about how we positioned Trello in the market to support strong word of mouth and virality. We always made sure people understood that Trello is a collaborative tool. It was important to us to occupy this space in people’s minds (rather than being thought of as a personal to-do or a notes app) so that we weren’t limited by the perception that Trello was for individual use only. We wanted to lay the groundwork for sharing by making sure people expected to use Trello with their colleagues, friends and families.
That was only the first part of the equation. Once we’d established Trello as a collaborative tool, we needed to deliver value to the individual quickly. It might sound counterintuitive, but we knew that unless we were able to follow through on the promises we made in our marketing materials, they wouldn’t have enough reason to share it with others. Trying to speed up the viral loop before demonstrating value is a mistake I see many SaaS companies falling into. They make a big ask, like connecting your address book or inviting your entire team way too early; before you have seen how the product can be of use to you. There are a lot of products out there for people to use. Some are good, some aren’t. People don’t want to look foolish by spamming their colleagues or friends with invitations to something that turns out to be a bust. You need to establish trust with people by delivering value before they will feel comfortable recommending your product. Don’t put the cart before the horse.
With those pieces in place, we started to refine aspects of our product that could influence virality and network effects. For instance, we enabled people to customize the message that was sent when they invited their colleagues into Trello with them. Through conversations with users, we uncovered a common scenario in which people wanted to collaborate with others, but they weren’t using the in-product invitation mechanism we’d built. Instead, they’d sit next to their colleague and walk them through the generic sign-up flow. After they’d signed their friend up, they’d then add them to existing boards so they could work together. By thinking about how this process was unfolding in the real world, human to human, we were able to craft an in-product collaboration experience that more closely emulated what people did naturally. We changed the invite process to include the option to customize the message so you could explain what you were inviting people to and why. We also started to notify the person who sent the invitation when the invitee signed up so they didn’t feel like the system was a black box. We even went a step further and prompted the inviter to help the person they invited get up to speed just after they got into the product.
We’ve also used one of our paid products, Trello Gold, as an incentive to drive product led growth. Developed for individuals, Trello Gold provides additional features and some other fun extras. We offer free months of Trello Gold in exchange for people inviting others to the platform. As an added benefit, we see users opt in to paying for Trello Gold after their free months run out because they enjoy the features.
While these kinds of incentive schemes can help drive growth, I’ve found that it’s the core elements of the product experience that deliver the best ROI. The contributions of things like free months of Trello Gold are dwarfed by the returns from a streamlined sign-up process, intuitive onboarding experience and natural in-product collaboration. It pays to get the basics right.
Product Led Growth – A Bigger Picture
New challenges often crop up as growth escalates, including how to prioritize between core product development and your growth engine well as how to identify the right metrics to help track engagement and growth.
The core product vs. growth engine often becomes an issue because people assume that these two efforts are at odds with one another. We’ve avoided that dilemma at Trello by making sure that everyone is focused on building a really great product and an elegant experience. Even when we’re testing a specific conversion optimization point, we’re also looking at long-term metrics. This ensures we’re not inadvertently damaging long-term retention in the name of short-term optimizations.We look at the whole picture to make sure we’re balancing our efforts across the full customer lifecycle.
On the metrics side of things, we look at the typical SaaS metrics around acquisition, activation, retention, revenue, referrals and so forth. But we’ve also developed a Trello-specific metric that is tailored to our particular use cases. Our “4 in 28” metric is an active usage metric that focuses specifically on content creators.
In Trello, we have two different kinds of users: creators (people who add cards, move them around, write comments, attach files, etc.) and observers (managers, executives and so forth who view boards to follow progress, but aren’t creating as often). If creation slows down, we know observing will soon slow too, so we need to keep an eye on those creators. We have found this to be a good benchmark for the right level of engagement for our product and use cases. A user is considered to be 4 in 28 if they have done any kind of content creation in the product on 4 different days over a 28-day period. This metric is key for us because it really hones in on how users are engaging with the product. Whenever we’re running experiments, we’re always asking if what we’re doing will also help drive up 4 in 28. It keeps our efforts focused and effective.
Branding and Marketing – Also Part of a Product Led Growth Strategy
Our focus on product led growth doesn’t mean we don’t also recognize the importance of solid branding and marketing. From how we position ourselves in the market, to the voice and tone used throughout our landing pages and beyond, our marketing efforts follow a lot of the same principles as our product.
When it comes to marketing, we know that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. We strive to cultivate a brand voice that has a very human tone, is helpful and sometimes even funny. We want to create a brand personality that resonates with people and makes it easy for them to connect with us.
We’re also careful to be really consistent with our voice. I notice companies sometimes slip up here by developing a really cool, fun voice for their marketing materials, but then failing to carry that through into the product. We work hard to preserve our voice through every touch point people have with us; from marketing materials to landing pages and through every product interaction including things like help documentation and notification emails. Every customer interaction weaves in our brand’s voice and personality; even pricing changes, terms of service updates and general drip campaigns. We want our customers to hear the Trello voice clearly in every interaction they have with us.
The Secret to Product Led Success: Make a Great Product that People Love
We have distilled our philosophy down to a list of 10 principles that describe Trello: Universal, Easy, Personal, Visual and Tactile, Familiar, Succinct, Direct, Flexible, Collaborative and Fun.
People are sometimes surprised that our principles aren’t more unique. After all, who doesn’t want to build a product that’s easy, flexible, collaborative or fun? But that’s intentional. Our principles are intended to come to life when they’re combined. An experience that’s visual and tactile, collaborative and fun–that sounds like something that’d fit well in Trello.
If I had to pick favorites, I’d say it’s a dead heat between two: “Direct” and “Fun.”
Direct speaks to how Trello enables users to manipulate objects on their screen directly, without wading through forms or settings menus. People can get things done quickly and intuitively by clicking, tapping and dragging. This provides a much more intuitive user experience than the old-school method that forces the people to fill out forms to indirectly make changes. The direct approach mimics the real-world experience more closely. If you were moving a Post-it®️ note across a wall, you’d just pick it up and move it. Trello gives you that same experience, only digitally.
Fun is all about the idea that even when work is hard, it can still be fun. Trello is a productivity tool that’s all about being organized and collaborating effectively; but through our customization features and visual nature, Trello helps people express themselves and the identities of their team. In the same way that you might decorate the walls of your office to make you feel inspired and comfortable, customizing the background and setup of your Trello board morphs it from just a tool for organization into a home for your most important work. Trello’s sense of fun and focus on self-expression is part of what helps people love it as much as they do.
The combination of these two attributes sum up the essence of Trello nicely. It’s a product that resonates with people by being useful and enabling them to work the way they want to work. And to me, that’s the essence of product led success: build something that people love so they want to share it with everyone they know.
The most important one: Don’t overthink it.
Thanks to the rise of product-led growth, it’s more urgent than ever to revisit freemium.