Author Archives: Casey Winters

Four Strategies to Win Big with Low Frequency Marketplaces

November 16th, 2017


Frequency creates habit which creates loyalty which creates profit. Uber and Lyft are successful because consumers need to get from A to B multiple times a day, forming habits that lead to long (and high!) lifetime values. Grubhub similarly benefited from people eating more than once per day.

But there aren’t that many business opportunities that have daily — or even weekly — frequencies. And those spaces have become very competitive. For example, how many food delivery companies can you name? Now add in groceries or meal kit cooking companies. All that just for the “eating” use case.

What if the natural frequency of use for a transactional business is low, like buying a house, selling a car, or booking a trip? How do you create a successful business if ideal frequency is quarterly or yearly or even once every few years? You would be unlikely to create a habit or loyalty, much less get the customer to remember your brand name. That is usually the case. If you don’t create loyalty, then you usually have re-acquire consumers when the need eventually arises again. This hurts customer acquisition costs and lifetime value. This fact makes building a successful business with low frequency extremely difficult.

With a low frequency business, you usually need to have a high average selling price to make up for the lack of frequency. While an order on Grubhub may cost you only $25, the average transaction size on Airbnb is hundreds of dollars. But a high average selling price alone is not enough to become a massively successful business. I’ve seen four distinct strategies for how to thrive in low frequency marketplaces. They all revolve around being top of mind when the transactional need occurs, no matter how infrequent that need is. I’ll start by talking about the most common approach, and then lead into some that are actually more valuable and defensible.

The Expedia Model (AKA SEO)
Companies that pursue this model: Thumbtack, Expedia, Apartments.com, WebMD

My first job was at Apartments.com. We were a classic low frequency marketplace. People search for apartments at most once a year, and there isn’t a whole lot of value you can provide in between apartment searches. So what did we do at Apartments.com? If you do not create habits or loyalty with initial use, users go back to the original way they solved the problem last time. Where do people go where they are searching for help renting an apartment? Usually, Google. So, the Apartments.com strategy was to rank well organically on Google so when people did search again for an apartment, they’d be likely to see us and use us for their search again.

SEO can be a very successful strategy, but the entire company has to be geared around success on Google. This strategy is also susceptible to platform shifts, like Google algorithm changes or Google deciding to compete with you. It also tends to shift companies toward portfolio models at scale. This is why Expedia owns Hotels.com, Orbitz, Hotwire, Travelocity, and Trivago, and why Priceline owns Booking.com and Kayak. When you rank #1 for your main keywords, the only way to grow is to own the #2 and #3 spots as well.

The Airbnb Model (AKA Better, Cheaper)
Companies that pursue this model: Airbnb, Rent The Runway, Poshmark

Sarah Tavel wrote a post about products that are 10x better and cheaper than their alternatives. You can definitely pursue this strategy even if you have low frequency. Airbnb was significantly cheaper than hotels, and many people, once they experienced Airbnb, found it a better experience as well. It was a more unique listing, in a “more real” part of the city, and they had a connection to a local. So, even though people only travel once or twice a year on average, when they do, they remember the Airbnb experience and start there directly instead of on Google, competing with the SEO behemoths of Expedia and Priceline.

Finding this level of differentiation in different industries is not easy, but worth contemplating. Airbnb is not the only startup that has entered a crowded space and grown rapidly by figuring out how to be 10x better and cheaper. RentTheRunway allows you to access high quality fashion without the high price, and without storing it, because dressing up is increasingly a low frequency occurrence.

The HotelTonight Model (AKA Insurance)
Companies that pursue this model: HotelTonight, One Medical, Lifelock, 1Password

There are certain businesses that are needed infrequently, but when they are needed, they are needed with great urgency. Example spaces include urgent care, being stuck in a random city unexpectedly, and fraud alerts. The key here is that someone keeps the app or account live despite a lack of usage because the fear of when it might be needed is so great. This is a hard strategy to pursue, but once the value prop is established, these companies remain sticky despite their lack of frequency.

The Houzz Model (AKA Engagement)
Companies that pursue this model: Houzz, Zillow, CreditKarma

Contrary to what many might think, keeping users engaged in a low frequency business is indeed possible: the key is a non-transactional experience. Many of these approaches have a “set and forget” component to them where they reach out with pertinent information in a more frequent way. Zillow is the first example I can remember that utilized this strategy. Even when not actively looking for houses to buy, Zillow kept users engaged by valuing their existing homes via the zestimates. Even when not actively looking for houses to buy, Zillow kept users engaged by valuing their existing homes via the zestimates. CreditKarma reaches out with alerts and monthly credit check updates.

Houzz is a great example that is more recent. People remodel and redecorate their homes infrequently, but they are inspired more regularly. Houzz has a great product that shows home inspiration that can be saved and discussed, and when needed, but much more rarely, transacted.This is a product people engage directly with in instead of having to have content pushed to them

For this strategy to work, you essentially build a second product that enables frequent engagement — not a transactional product. Engagement strategies for low frequency marketplaces take advantage of an inherent human desire to stay up-to-date on things important to them. This won’t work for all industries. We actually tried this at Apartments.com, but were not successful because renters don’t care as much about investing in their living situation as homeowners.

A common confusion is that loyalty programs are an example of this. What loyalty programs usually do is increase frequency or target users that have high category frequency, like business travelers in the travel segment, rather than create loyalty from infrequent users. It is still a very valuable strategy, and I have blogged about loyalty programs if you want to learn more.

Of the four models I wrote about above, you will notice that not one of these is a brand model. Many of the sites listed in the SEO model have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building brands. Yet most travel searchers still start with Google. Brand is an extension of the Airbnb model, not its own strategy. If the product doesn’t deliver on a differentiated experience, brand building usually does not create loyalty.

So, if you’re building a low frequency business, do not dismay. There are many paths to still becoming a very large and differentiated business. These strategies are difficult but very rewarding if they are executed well.

Currently listening to Take Me Apart by Kelela.

Why Focus Is Critical to Growing Your Startup, Until It Isn’t

October 23rd, 2017

When I was a teenager, I told my dad about a friend and his dad and how they had seven businesses. He immediately replied, “And none of them make money.” I thought it was an extremely arrogant thing to say at the time, but later, I realized it might be the smartest piece of advice he ever gave me.

When I joined Grubhub, I quickly noticed the founders were incredibly good at staying focused. They said we were building a product for online ordering for food delivery — and only delivery — not pickup, not delivery of other items, not catering, and that’s all we would do for a long time. I remember thinking, “but there’s so much we could do in [XYZ]!” I was wrong. By staying focused on one thing, we were able to execute technically and operationally extremely well and grow the business both very successfully and efficiently. When we added pickup functionality four years later, it proved not to be a very valuable addition, and hurt our conversion rate on delivery.

If you have product/market fit in a large market, you should be disincentivized to work on anything outside of securing that market for a very long time. There is so much value in securing the market that any work on building new value propositions and new markets is destructive to securing the market you have already validated.

There is an interesting switch in the mindset of a startup that needs to occur when a startup hits product/market fit. This group of people that found product/market fit by creating something new now have to realize they should not work on any new value propositions for years. They now need to work on honing the current product value or getting more people to experience that value. Founders can easily hide from the issues of a startup by working on what they’re good at, and by definition, they’re usually good at creating new products. So that tends to be a founder’s solution to all problems. But it’s frequently destructive.

If a product team can work on innovation, iteration, or growth, they need to quickly shift on which of those they prioritize based on key milestones and value to the business. In this scenario, it’s important to define what innovation, iteration, and growth mean. In this context:

  • Innovation is defined as creating new value for customers or opening up value to new customers. This is Google creating Gmail.
  • Iteration is improving on the value proposition you already provide. This can range from small things like better filters for search results at Grubhub to large initiatives like UberPool. In both cases, they improve on the value proposition the company is already working on (making it easier to find food in the case of Grubhub, and being the most reliable and cheapest way to get from A to B in the case of Uber).
  • Growth is defined as anything that attempts to connect more people to the existing value of the service, like increasing a product’s virality or reducing its friction points.

I have graphed the rollercoaster of what that looks like below around the key milestone of product/market fit.

Market Saturation
The time to think about expanding into creating new value propositions or new markets is when you feel the pressure of market saturation. Depending on the size of the market, this may happen quickly or slowly over time. For Grubhub, expansion into new markets made sense after the company went public and had signed up most of the restaurants that performed delivery in the U.S. The only way the company could continue to grow was to expand more into cities that did not have a lot of delivery restaurants by doing the delivery themselves.

All markets are eventually saturated, and that means all growth will slow unless you create new products or open up new markets. But most entrepreneurs move to doing this too early because it’s how they created the initial value in the company. Timing when to work on iteration and growth and when to work on innovation are very important decisions for founders, and getting it right is the key difference to maximizing value and massively under-performing.

B2B Growth Podcast with Naomi Ionita

August 14th, 2017

Naomi Ionita, VP of Growth at Invoice2go and formerly Director of Growth at Evernote, joins me to discuss the growth B2B startups that grow more like consumer businesses. We discuss topics like how to monetize your product in general, converting new customers to paying customers, and preventing churn.

The iTunes link is here, and here is the Soundcloud link for email readers.

Why Onboarding is the Most Crucial Part of Your Growth Strategy

July 18th, 2017

When people talk about growth, they usually assume the discussion is about getting more people to your product. When we really dig into growth problems, we often see that enough people are actually coming to the products. The real growth problems start when people land… and leave. They don’t stick. This is an onboarding problem, and it’s often the biggest weakness for startups. It can also take the longest to make meaningful improvements when compared to other parts of the growth funnel.

In my role as Growth Advisor-in-Residence at Greylock, I talk to startups in the portfolio about getting new users to stick around. Through many failed experiments and long conversations poring over data and research, I have learned some fundamental truths about onboarding. I hope this can function as a guide for anyone tackling this problem at their company.

What is Successful Onboarding?
Before you can fix your onboarding efforts, you need to define what successful onboarding is to you. What does it mean to have someone habitually using your product? Only then can you measure how successful you are at onboarding them. To do so, you need to answer two questions:

  • What is your frequency target? (How often should we expect the user to receive value?)
  • What is your key action? (The action signifies the user is receiving enough value to remain engaged)

To benchmark frequency, look at offline analogs. At Grubhub, we determined how often people ordered delivery by calling restaurants. The answer was once or twice a month, so we used a “once a month” as a benchmark for normal frequency for Grubhub. At Pinterest, the analog was a little harder to determine, but using Pinterest was most like browsing a magazine, which people read weekly or monthly. So we started with monthly, and now they look at weekly metrics.

Identifying the key action can be easy or hard — it depends on your business. At Grubhub, it was pretty easy to determine. You only received value if you ordered food, so we looked at if you placed a second order. At Pinterest, this was a little harder to determine. People derive value from Pinterest in different ways, from browsing lots of images to saving images to clicking through to the source of content. Eventually, we settled on saving (pinning an image to your board), because, while people can get value from browsing or clicking through on something, we weren’t sure if it was satisfying. You only save things if you like them.

Once you know your key action and your frequency target, you have to track that target over time. You should be able to draw a line of all users who sign up during a specific period, and measure if they do the key action within the frequency target after signup. For products with product/market fit, the line flattens as a percentage of the users complete the key action every period:

If the line flattens rather quickly, your successful activation metric is people who are still doing [key action] at [set interval] at [this period after signup]. So, for Pinterest, that was weekly savers four weeks after signup. If your cohort takes a longer time to flatten, you measure a leading indicator. At Grubhub, the leading indicator was a second order within thirty days of first order.

How should you research onboarding?
You can break down cohort curve above into two sections. The part above where the curve flattens are people who “churn”, — or did not receive enough value to make the product a habit. The people below where the curve flattens have been successfully onboarded.

To research onboarding, talk to both groups of people to get their thoughts. I like to do a mix of surveys, phone calls, and qualitative research using the product. I usually start with phone calls to see what I can learn from churners and activators. Our partner Josh Elman talks about best practices to speaking with churners, or bouncebacks. If I am able to glean themes from those conversations, I can survey the broader group of churners and activators to quantify the reasons for success and failure to see which are most common. (Sidenote: You’ll need to incentivize both groups to share their thoughts with you. For those that didn’t successfully activate, give them something of value for their time, like an Amazon gift card or money. For those that did, you may be able to give them something free in your product.)

But it is not enough to just talk to people who already have activated or churned. You also want to watch the process as it’s happening to understand it deeper. In this case, at Pinterest, we brought in users and watched them sign up for the product and go through the initial experience. When we needed to learn about this internationally, we flew out to Brazil, France, Germany and other countries to watch people try to sign up for the product there. This was the most illuminating part of the research, because you see the struggle or success in real time and can probe it with questions. Seeing the friction of international users first hand allowed us to understand it deeper and focus our product efforts on removing that friction.

The principles of successful onboarding
#1: Get to product value as fast as possible — but not faster
A lot of companies have a “cold start problem” — that is, they start the user in an empty state where the product doesn’t work until the user does something. This frequently leaves users confused as to what to do. If we know a successful onboarding experience leads to the key action adopted at the target frequency, we can focus on best practices to maximize the number of people who reach that point.

The first principle we learned at Pinterest is that we should get people to the core product as fast as possible — but not faster. What that means is that you should only ask the user for the minimum amount of information you need to get them to the valuable experience. Grubhub needs to know your address. Pinterest needs to know what topics you care about so they can show you a full feed of ideas.

You should also reinforce this value outside the product. When we first started sending emails to new users at Pinterest, we sent them education on the features of Pinterest. When Trevor Pels took a deeper look at this area, he changed the emails to deliver on the value we promised in the first experience, instead of telling users what we thought was important about the product. This shift increased activation rates. And once the core value is reinforced, you can actually introduce more friction to deepen the value created. When web signups clicked on this content on their mobile devices, we asked them to get the app, and because they were now confident in the value, they did get the app. Conversely, sending an email asking users to get the app alone led to more unsubscribes than app downloads.
Many people will use this principle as a way to refute any attempts to add extra steps into the signup or onboarding process. This can be a mistake. If you make it clear to the user why you are asking them for a piece of information and why it will be valuable to them, you can actually increase activation rate because it increases confidence in the value to be delivered, and more actual value is delivered later on.

Principle #2: Remove all friction that distracts the user from experiencing product value
Retention is driven by a maniacal focus on the core product experience. That is more likely to mean reducing friction in the product than adding features to it. New users are not like existing users. They are trying to understand the basics of how to use a product and what to do next. You have built features for existing users that already understand the basics and now want more value. New users not only don’t need those yet; including them makes it harder to understand the basics. So, a key element of successful onboarding is removing everything but the basics of the product until those basics are understood. At Pinterest, this meant removing descriptions underneath Pins as well as who Pinned the item, because the core product value had to do with finding images you liked, and removing descriptions and social attribution allowed news users to see more images in the feed.

Principle #3: Don’t be afraid to educate contextually
There’s a quote popular in Silicon Valley that says if your design requires education, it’s a bad design. It sounds smart, but its actually dangerous. Product education frequently helps users understand how to get value out of a product and create long term engagement. While you should always be striving for a design that doesn’t need explanation, you should not be afraid to educate if it helps in this way.

There are right and wrong ways to educate users. The wrong way: show five or six screens when users open the app to explain how to do everything — or even worse, show a video. This is generally not very effective. The right way: contextually explain to the user what they could do next on the current screen. At Pinterest, when people landed on the home feed for the first time, we told them they could scroll to see more content. When they stopped, we told them they could click on content for a closer look. When they clicked on a piece of content, we told them they could save it or click through to the source of the content. All of it was only surfaced when it was contextually relevant.

Onboarding is both the most difficult and ultimately most rewarding part of the funnel to improve to increase a company’s growth. And it’s where most companies fall short. By focusing on your onboarding, you can delight users more often and be more confident exposing your product to more people. For more advice on onboarding, please read Scott Belsky’s excellent article on the first mile of product.

Currently listening to Easy Pieces by Latedeuster.

Starting and Scaling Marketplaces Podcast

July 10th, 2017

Brian Rothenberg, VP & GM at Eventbrite, and I discuss how to start and scale marketplaces. We discuss certain topics such as the chicken and egg problem, going horizontal vs. vertical at the beginning, and traditional and non-traditional growth tactics to grow marketplaces. You can check it out below or read the summary here.

The iTunes link is here, and here is the Soundcloud link for email readers.

The Right Way to Involve a Qualitative Research Team

June 12th, 2017

Most teams significantly under-invest in qualitative research. Growth teams especially are all about data, but they think that data can only come from experiments. This can make teams overly reliant on what they can learn from experiments and the quality of the data they have, and under-invest from what they can learn from talking to users. This problem is usually exacerbated by the fact that existing researchers at startups aren’t usually assigned directly to teams or work independently. I’ll talk about some of the problems I’ve seen, and the right way to invest in qualitative research for your growth team.

Learning and Applying from Research
Using the right type and method for your question is key. Of course, qualitative research is one component of the research stack along with quantitative research and market research. There is also different types of qualitative research depending on what you are trying to learn.

I remember when I was at Apartments.com and went to my first focus group, a common type of qualitative research. It was a mess for multiple reasons. The first reason was structure. Finding an apartment is not a large social behavior, so why were we talking with a group of ten strangers at once? As what I later learned usually happened, one or two participants volunteered the majority of the feedback, so while we paid for ten people’s opinions, we really only received two people’s opinions. So, I now only do research with multiple people in the room if it’s a social product, and it’s a group that would use it togethers e.g. friends or co-workers.

The second issue was delivering the feedback to people who weren’t there. I wrote up a long perspective on what the issues were with Apartments.com vs. our competitors. It primarily included product feedback on why we were getting crushed by Craigslist in major cities. I sent it to my VP and received a one sentence reply, “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” What a waste of time, I thought. We do all this research, generate real insights, and no one’s interested.

I’ve now learned that research teams inside companies feel this every day. At Pinterest, we had an amazing research team, but they were originally a functional team, which meant they had to determine their own roadmap of what to research. Depending on the stakeholders you listen to, this can be broad strategic projects like “What is the deal with men?” to specific projects like “Help us test this new search flow already built.” Research can add value at both stages, so the team worked on both.

What I think research found when they worked on the broader strategic issues was similar to my response at Apartments.com. “Cool, but not my roadmap!” say the product managers. Research then gets filed away never to be looked at again. Researchers get very frustrated. To be clear, this is a failure of leadership — not the product teams — if these areas aren’t prioritized. But it is common. On the flipside of working on something already built, success was more variable based on how well the product team defined what they wanted to learn. Frequently, what the product team wanted to learn was that they could ship it, so they selectively listened to feedback to things that indicated they were on the right path.

What I have learned suggests that qualitative research cannot be effective unless 1) its people are dedicated a cross-functional product team and 2) research is involved throughout the entire product development process, from initial research on market to determining a strategy to testing concepts to testing nearly finished products. The value of research accrues the more it is a part of each step in the process.

This approach solves for two main problems. One is that product teams will only pay attention to feedback that is directly related to their current product and on their own timeline. Without being part of the cross-functional team that includes product, engineering, and design, it is hard for research to to be on the same timeline. The second problem this solves is it helps research prevent the rest of the team from locking on assumptions that they may be wrong, so they are focused on the right solution to the problem with research, instead of confirmation bias at the end of a project. The Pinterest team has moved to this model, and for my teams, it made both sides much more successful.

When to Research and When to Experiment
For teams that rely too much on experiments and not enough on research, I tell them two things:

  • Experiments are great for understanding what people do and don’t do. Research helps you understand why they do or do not do those things
  • Experiments don’t help you understand the under-represented groups that might be the most important to learn from e.g. non-users or smaller segments of users

A great way to get started with research as a team is to answer why your experiment didn’t work. Sometimes, the answer is there in the experiment data, but frequently it is not. You have to talk to users to understand why they are doing what they are doing. The best way to do that is to ask them the context of them doing or not doing it.

There is also the middle ground of quantitative research that can be helpful (usually surveys). What I usually like to do is use qualitative research to understand the universe of reasons for something, and use quantitative research if I need to quantify the importance/commonality of those reasons.

Research also helps you isolate users you may not be able to isolate with your usage data. For example, at Grubhub, we were trying to understand how many people used Grubhub regularly for delivery, but not for every order. So, we asked. Then, we called those users to understand why they sometimes don’t use Grubhub, then sent another survey with those reasons to quantify which ones were most important to address. I outline that process more here.

But I Don’t Even Have a Research Team
At Grubhub, we didn’t have a research team for the first couple of years (or even a product team for that matter). So, when we needed to learn things, me, someone on my team, or our sole designer (hello Jack!) would do one of three things: 1) throw flows up on usertesting.com, 2) survey users on our email list, or 3) call users on the phone, and provide them with free food for their time.

You don’t need to be a professional researcher to do this, though they are better at it. You just need to determine what you’re trying to learn and who from. You want to watch people go through that situation if you can. If you can’t, ask them about the last time it happened and what they did and why. You will get better at it the more times you do it. Startups are starting to hire researchers earlier in their development because of the importance of understanding users beyond the data. So, you may be able to justify a full time role here earlier than you thought.

Thanks to Gabe Trionfi for reading early drafts of this and providing his feedback. HeHAH!

Currently listening to Beyond Serious by Bibio.

You Are Not Your Customer

May 1st, 2017

Startups are successful in the early days usually for one of two reasons. One is having a unique insight or pain point in the world that you want to solve (usually for yourself as the founder first), and assuming it is pain experienced by others. The other is to listen to customers, deliver value to those customers, and make sure they understand and appreciate the value you’re providing. The second way requires founders to hone specific skills in the early days of a startup — which can actually make it harder to scale out of the early stage, but pays off with sustainable growth in the long term.

The people that try your product early on see the potential of your product and are willing to forgive flaws — at least for a while. They have done an incredible amount of work to make the product work for them. By most definitions, they become “power users.” These power users are heavily engaged with your product, but they also deliver a ton of feedback on how the product could be better for themselves.

The early employees of your company tend to be very similar to your early customers. They (hopefully) use the product quite a bit, and joined the company because they understood the long term vision. These employees then start recommending and building products for themselves also, especially in consumer businesses. Everyone is excited to build these features because employees want them and existing customers want them, so the company builds them. The features get built, and there is no impact on growth of the business. Our partner Sarah Tavel talks about this in her lessons from scaling Pinterest.

Why is that a problem? Well, in an old Quora question someone asked, “What are some of the most important things you’ve learned in marketing?”, and my reply was “You are not your customer.” As a company employee, even if you look exactly like the early customer, and you built the product for people exactly like you, you have way too much domain knowledge to truly represent the long term customer. Your early users are also no longer the customer. Both employees and early users have have built up too much domain knowledge.

Your customer focus should always be on new or potential users, not early users. Early users will bias experiments, prompt you to build more and more niche features, and stunt growth. Power users can’t be much more engaged, so building more things for them doesn’t usually help the business. It does, however, make the product harder to understand for new customers. Sure, you have to do enough to keep these power users happy enough to stay, but the much more daunting and important task is to find new people to delight, or to figure out how to delight people who weren’t initially delighted by your product.

This post originally appeared on the Greylock blog.

Currently listening to Ambivert Tools Volume One by Lone.

Solving for Snapchat’s Declining User Growth: A New Podcast

April 4th, 2017

Julie Zhou, former director of growth at Yik Yak, and I spent some time discussing Snapchat’s declining user growth now that it is public, what its causes might be, and what we’d tried to do if we were in charging of improving it. You can check it out below or read the summary here.

The iTunes link is here, and here is the Soundcloud link for email readers.

Currently listening to Chnoiseries Pt. 3 by Onra.