Author Archives: Casey Winters

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.

The Death Spiral of Startup CMOs

March 13th, 2017

I’ve met with a lot of CMO/VP Marketing types at startups. Generally speaking, they do not have a long shelf life. I was curious why so many startup CMOs leave the company after a short period of time, so I dug in a bit to figure out why. I found that it’s partially due to bad hiring practices for startup executives (which I have previously blogged about), but even more common was that big brand traditional marketers have a tough time “scaling down” into the scrappy, digital-first world of startups tactically.

The traditional marketing executive is more likely to be a brand marketer from a large company than an online marketing or growth person from a startup. These marketers have built careers deploying big budgets and leveraging a few channels that really matter to tell the brand story. The main one of course is still TV. TV is great for brand building, but startups cannot wait for multiple years of investment in brand advertising to start to pay off. They typically will run out of cash before they start seeing a return on the investment in TV. (This problem is particularly acute if you’re a startup that is live only in a few cities and gradually expanding across the country — i.e. most marketplaces.)

How does a marketing executive get a quicker read on effectiveness, especially if their startup doesn’t cover the entire country? One way I’ve seen marketers try to solve this problem quickly is to buy local TV brand advertising in a test market and compare to a control test market where they have not bought TV advertising. They measure if brand metrics improve in the paid market during a three month test. If brand metrics improve, it should be leading indicators for sales to improve.

On paper, this makes sense, but in practice, it is the first trigger of the CMO death spiral. The problem is twofold. First, the cost of local TV is 10x more expensive than national advertising. That premium is hard to make up. Second, TV brand advertising is generally not very effective and even harder to drive quick results. With a typical brand-based buy, ads will run at many different times during many different, popular shows. So even though many people will be watching and thus exposed to the brand, the viewers’ focus is on the show and not on a call to action.

In short, big brand marketing executives have used large budgets for a test and gained small bits of exposure for the company. That exposure usually doesn’t transit into brand lift or sales, and the founders quickly lose confidence in the CMO. From there, I’ve seen it is a matter of months before they either get fired or lose their budget, which will make them leave.

But its not all fire and brimstone! There are savvy ways for marketers with big brand backgrounds to be successful at startups. For one thing, start by testing national, direct response TV. This type of ad buy targets people who are watching TV because they are bored — not because they are super engaged with the show. In this scenario, ads run at off-peak times or on less popular networks and only cover a small percentage of the country. You get the data on the exact times and areas where the ads run. Then, you can watch for an immediate response in website/app traffic right after the ad, and track those users to see what they end up doing. Agencies that sell direct response typically offer data science services to measure the impact, and you can augment their reports with tools like Convertro or C3 Metrics that do it.

Grubhub and Seamless are both good on-demand startup case studies before they merged: Seamless bought national, direct response TV ads while the service only covered 20% of the U.S. population. Grubhub did it with only 40% coverage. Seamless then used all the website traffic data outside their coverage areas to determine where to launch next. At Grubhub, we saw a response immediately during some of these ads airing, and could actually calculate not just brand lift surveys, but CPAs due to transactions.

A broader lesson here is that traditional target marketing can be expensive as the people selling advertising have learned that traditional marketers will pay a premium for it. And while that math still works for a CMO of a CPG brand, it won’t typically work for a startup.

What is the the best way for a CMO to be successful and stick with your company for the long term? First, they need to find ways to reach the target market they want to reach in a cost effective way. (I go deeper into this topic on my post on remnant inventory.) Seamless reached an insane amount of people in New York with DRTV ads, so it didn’t matter that some people in Boise saw them, too. Secondly, CMOs need to work on other ways to add value to the business besides telling big brand stories. Depending on the business, that can include understanding customers better, building communities, performance marketing, or product driven growth.

Currently listening to Children of Alice by Children of Alice.

The Real Value of PR for Startups

February 23rd, 2017

Many startups get obsessed with press. Not just CEOs, but also employees, friends of employees, and investors. Press, like paid acquisition, can be a drug though. I’ll talk about some of the ways the startup ecosystem perceives press is bad, what it is actually good for, and some outliers.

Press Abuse
First, let’s talk about some of the abuse of press by startups in the past. Business insider has a great recap of some of the issues Evernote faced in the couple years before their CEO stepped down. I’ll highlight this quote in particular.

“There was a feeling that we were working on the wrong priorities,” a former employee said. “It was clear the motive was to just continually drum up press. They had no idea how to optimize and improve growth.”

From The inside story of how $1 billion Evernote went from Silicon Valley darling to deep trouble

Startups frequently correlate press with growth, and think that they need to create new stories to drive growth. Then they start changing their entire product roadmap to drive press instead of value to customers. Startups should not look for PR to drive growth. PR doesn’t usually drive growth. And when it does, it’s a bump, not an engine. In startups, you want to build growth engines.

This is arguably a better problem than the second way PR drives bad acting in the ecosystem: founders getting addicted to the attention of press. It feels great when there’s a picture of you in the Wall Street Journal and your mom sees it and your dad’s friends. And founders frequently want to create that feeling. It’s as if appearing successful is more important than being successful. This can be a dangerous pattern.

Another problem with press is that it helps competitors understand exactly what you’re doing. I’ve talked in the past of the advantage of being a silent killer and why seeking press attracts unneeded competitor attention. I won’t repeat that here.

What Press Is Good For
A common refrain I tell startups is that press is good for three things: investor interest, employee interest, and links for SEO. I’ll break those down a bit, and talk about why they matter. First, let’s talk about investors. Very few businesses make sense for venture capital, but when they do, they increasingly need larger amounts of it. The venture business has extreme cases of FOMO. One deal can make all the difference. So investors rely on a lot of signals, and the tech press is one important one they look at not only to find new business to research, but to also get comfort in their interest in certain businesses. When Grubhub was raising its Series C from Benchmark, we got written up about our iPhone app on Techcrunch. For Grubhub’s growth, it didn’t matter at all. But it looked great for our fundraising.

Likewise with investors, potential employees rely on press to hear about potential new places of employment and to feel comfortable they are making a good move. Recruiting outreach will have a lower conversion rate if the person has never heard of your company, or if the person’s network hasn’t heard of you when they ask around. This can be overcome, especially if you’re well connected or can tout amazing metrics privately (like WhatsApp), but my guess is WhatsApp always had a harder time recruiting than Snapchat.

Lastly, press is very helpful for SEO. SEO is about relevance and authority, and links from press are a great way to increase authority in the eyes of search engines. Not only can press drive a quantity of links, but the quality of links are probably the highest most startups will receive. So many people link to news publications that they have among the highest domain authority on the internet. Now, getting one of these links won’t make you rank #1, but it’s part of a healthy SEO strategy.

When Can Press Be an Engine of Growth?
Now that I’ve set an argument that press doesn’t usually drive growth directly, I want to talk about some outliers of when it does. Press can drive growth if a certain story about your startup is self-perpetuating. Then, the volume of articles written about you happens in such a regular cadence that readers eventually act on it. I have seen this happen in two major startups over the last ten years in Twitter and Uber. With Twitter, it received such a tremendous uptake from journalists that they kept writing stories about it. This drove their readers to try it, and it became a sustained vehicle for organic acquisition (unfortunately with a low activation rate, but that isn’t press’s fault, but the product). Uber’s growth via press was a little more sculpted. They were able to create a story about the business of Uber fighting against corrupt incumbents and governments that were preventing a better product from succeeding. It was almost a movement. For years this created a headline about Uber almost every week as they faced this resistance in almost every city in which they launched.

I want to highlight that these are anomalies, and it’s unlikely you will be able to create sustained growth directly from press in your company. But that doesn’t mean press is worthless. Just remember what it’s good for, and make it work for you for those interests.