Summary: Consumer-grade experience is the future, regardless of the industry you may be in. It will be table stakes to customers, and how you align to high growth spaces as a business leader. After spending six months in a Product Led Growth (PLG) software startup I have learned to make the pivot and I offer a few learnings for others on a similar journey, (1) you just have to get started, (2) build a community to engage with and learn from, (3) “build or die” and (4) leverage PLG strategies and tools (not agencies) to create coordinated nudges and process across sales and marketing teams.
The power of Sales-Led Growth (SLG)
After a two-decade career spanning retail, industrial, and healthcare businesses at a top US retailer and large multinational industrial company I pivoted. I walked away from what I know deeply about (traditional sales-led business) and dove right in, not just into software, but a product-led growth (PLG) software startup. Some people think I am crazy, but I am even more certain now that product-led is not just the future of SaaS it is the future of all business.
Lately, all you hear about in Corporate America is ‘transformation’. Every company has realized data is king, and the winners of the next decade in business will be those that build a consumer-grade experience, no matter what business model or industry they are in. Jeff Lawson sums this up in his book Ask Your Developer when he asserts “every industry is becoming a software industry…because there is a Darwinian evolution playing out… ‘Build vs. Die.’”1 The criticality of this is you have to build your customer-facing infrastructure in a way that allows you to know them deeply and at scale.
The autonomy and knowledge of front-line sales has long been the bellwether and true north for a company. This was valuable because they had the greatest amount of signal from the market and customers. However, since this was not data-driven those that could bang the table loudest steered the ship. Additionally, trying to implement anything without the attention and 100% buy-in of this group proved to be fruitless. The next era of product-led will end this battle between sales & marketing to make better business decisions, as Jeff Hardison from Calendly recommends in his recent article, “1. Don’t fight each other and 2. Don’t fight the data religion”.2
Leading the pivot
Transformation sounds easy. So why does it fail so often or only take a company so far? I have watched two Fortune 100 companies from up close miss the pivot. First in the 2000s when larger retailers failed to recognize the threat online commerce was posing while their own employees’ behavior had completely shifted. Then again in the 2010s when B2B failed to see preferences lean toward consumer-grade experience vs. the “old pal” sales relationship.
If you live in a world where your only signal from the market is the voice of sales and NPS, it's time for a reckoning. How will you see around the corner and plan a winning strategy for your business?
If you don’t acknowledge that no matter what industry you are in, your customers already expect more than what you are delivering, then you have missed the pivot.
Every company should be singularly focused on how to deliver a more consumer-grade experience. This is how you align to a high-growth market space and win. If brick-and-mortar retail would have thought this way sooner, they would not have invested billions into stores vs transforming their eCommerce presence. If large multinationals would have thought this way sooner, they would not still allocate the majority of marketing spend on traditional marketing.
Product-led can work in traditional companies too. Who has tried Miro, Figma, Canva, or Slack in the past year? If you have, then you’ve experienced how pervasive product-led is and how it spans all industries and business models. The question for anyone shouldn’t be when to transition from SLG to PLG, the question should be how to do it faster.
The power of PLG (our learnings so far…)
To be consumer-grade, you have to meet customers where they are, aka the watering holes, and ensure your customers can find you when and where they go looking. I saw this in action while living and working in China where the lines between B2B and consumer-grade were already blurring years ago. Companies had been built into empires positioned purely to help traditional B2B companies make this shift. The business model was to work directly with large online commerce platforms and establish branded and B2B ‘shops’.
You don’t have to pay an agency to do this for you. Before pivoting myself, I spent almost a full year and over $1M working with an agency to build a more consumer-grade experience for our customers. Since coming to DevRev I have seen how you can build your own consumer-grade experience by working with your Dev team and leveraging other PLG solutions much more efficiently.
If I were assembling a playbook on this pivot and finding product market fit, here’s what I’d tell you to do:
- Figure out where your customers are and meet them there by setting up a community…it is never too early or late to do this. Canva has done this brilliantly as outlined in this article3. At DevRev, before we ever launched a beta product we had 2,000+ community members ready and waiting.
- Learn (get more data!) about your potential and existing customers by engaging with them… at DevRev we asked our community about their use of Development tools and pain points. This helped us roadmap our product and prioritize our prospect pipeline.
- Build a place where your customers can engage…direct them where to find out more about what you are offering and keep it simple! The hierarchy of your product(s) can develop and evolve. Users should be able to try your product, without talking to anyone, at a minimum give them a chance everywhere you can for a customer to express interest. Any company can make sure there is always a call to action!
- Leverage coordinated nudges…market studies and cold calling are a thing of the past. Instead coordinate nudges from your community, application, and customer success / customer service / sales teams — this gives you more data! about the user and their behavior vs acting on stale 3rd party information.
- Become an ‘automation freak’…this term was used by one of my favorite PLG prospects I have met thus far, and it is a mantra we live by at DevRev. It means, figure out what can be automated from data collection to nudges to Slack notifications and more. It ensures you know when an important event occurs and should tie back to a success metric.
The pivot doesn’t have to be complex, if there is one thing I have learned in my transition it's that sometimes you just need to start to get started. It doesn’t have to be planned and structured, just get the inertia going. It won’t be perfect, but you will keep the customer at the center by asking yourself: what would you expect as a consumer of your product, how do YOU search, learn and buy?
The more you build a presence for people to find and engage with the more data you will have and the more you will learn. As you do this your front line will pivot from the loudest people to your product. Having your product and data as your front line will allow you to move from wanting to being PLG through a data-driven approach.
Truly being able to pivot will also require a tight connection between your teams, and a collaborative vs. combative approach. Tethering your growth (marketing) and customer-facing (sales and customer support/service) teams together to do this successfully is the only way to build an efficient and scalable product-led growth company.
Mollie Holland is currently responsible for Revenue at DevRev, a software platform that connects makers to customers. Before DevRev she worked at 3M, a Fortune 100 company with $35B in revenue and 95,000 employees worldwide. During her time at 3M, she held various global leadership roles including responsibility for corporate transformation initiatives, global business strategy, management and marketing of categories over $5B in revenue.
Mollie has also worked at Target Corporation, also a Fortune 100 company and the 2nd largest retailer in the US in Merchandising and Account Management at a Marketing & Advertising agency in Minneapolis. Her educational background includes an MBA from the Carlson School of Management and a BA in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
References: 1Lawson, Jeff. Ask Your Developer, Harper Collins 2021
2DeWitt, Zachary. “Notorious PLG 6.22.22: PLG + Sales Need to Hug It Out.”, Notorious PLG Newsletter, 22 June 2022, https://notoriousplg.substack.com/p/notorious-plg-61522-plg-sales-need?utm_source=email.
3de Maine, Bridget. “How to Build a Community for Your Business - Learn.” Canva, https://www.canva.com/learn/building-community-and-business/.