“We want to create more value than we capture.”*
Tim Kendall, the former President of Pinterest, repeated those words at an all hands to describe our strategy for monetization a few years ago. My role as an advisor to Greylock’s portfolio companies allows me to work with many different types of businesses: consumer social, marketplaces, SaaS, etc. I’ve come to realize this saying describes an optimal strategy for a lot more than just an ad-supported revenue model. It should actually be the guiding light for most subscription software businesses.
Align Revenue To The Value You Create
One of the most common questions I receive from subscription businesses is when to ask for a signup and when to start charging customers. In freemium businesses, the slightly different question is how aggressively you upsell the paid product, and how good you make the free product. If you talk to entrepreneurs, you will get definitive answers from them, but they are frequently the opposite of each other. “You should never give away your product for free!” “You’ll never succeed without a free trial!” “Ask for credit card upfront! People won’t take the product seriously.” “Never ask for a credit card upfront! You’ll shoo too many people away.” The default answer I gave to entrepreneurs after hearing all of this feedback is that it depends on the business and needs to be tested.
As I researched more into the problem, these questions actually seemed to be the wrong questions to be asking. Harkening back to Tim Kendall’s advice, I started asking entrepreneurs, “What is the path to actually creating value from your service for your customers? How long does it take, and what actions need to be accomplished?” In other words, very similar advice to what is a successful onboarding? Once you learn that, you can determine how to capture some of the value you create.
Capture Value For The Business After Value Has Been Created For The Customer
When your product is subscription based, the prime time to ask for a subscription is after a successful onboarding occurs. It frequently is based on usage, not time. Dropbox is a famous example. The product is free up to a certain amount of storage. Once a user hits that amount of storage, they cannot add more files to Dropbox without paying. This storage amount also happens to be around the point where Dropbox becomes a habit, and represents real switching costs to find another way to share files across devices. So their conversion rates to paid are very high without any sort of time-based trial period. They don’t have a free product and a paid product; they have a free introduction to their paid product, and it becomes paid as soon as value has been created for the customer.
Your company may not have a long time to demonstrate value though, which may force your product to change to display (and capture) value more quickly. For startups based on search engine traffic, people reach your page with intent at that moment, and you frequently learn that this initial session is your only chance to convert them. So you push for a signup during that session after showing a preview of the value you can provide.
That is what we implemented at Pinterest, and it worked well, but it definitely created backlash from users for whom we had not yet created enough value. Once Pinterest was relevant on search engines for multiple topics, we saw people come back multiple times, and pulled back the signup walls on first visit. At that point, Pinterest was confident users would come back and thus focused on demonstrating more value before asking for signup.
Don’t Try To Capture Value In A Way That Reduces Value Created
It’s interesting to map the revenue growth of Dropbox to Evernote over the same time period. Evernote allows you to store an unlimited number of files and only makes you pay for advanced features like offline storage, storing large files, and (later) sharing on more than two devices. These features would have actually increased value created and switching costs if they were free, because Evernote’s value prop is about being able to access notes everywhere. If Evernote had instead mined their data and seen that people stick around after, say 50 notes, that would probably have had more effective monetization.
You only want to hide features from free users if they do not create habits or virality. Hiding sharing functionality before payment never makes sense because it introduces more people to the product for free. Hiding functionality that helps create retention also doesn’t make sense because you can always upsell retained users, but you can never upsell users who did not see the value and therefore don’t come back.
Decreasing Churn Is Long Term More Important Than Maximizing Conversion
Many people will decry that this strategy actually reduces revenue. In the short term, this sentiment is likely to be true. Decreasing churn might have a lower conversion rate upfront, but it aligns to long term successful retention. Churn rate is usually one of the biggest barriers to long term growth, so it’s worth thinking about this type of strategy even if it has a short-term decrease in revenue. It can be much harder to re-acquire someone after they have canceled, than charge someone for the first time who has been receiving regular value because you charged them for value you didn’t create.
What usually happens when a company captures more value than they create is they will have high revenue growth for a period of time (with a lot of investor enthusiasm), followed by a flattening of growth and then a steep revenue decline. This happens because revenue growth is a lagging indicator. Usage growth is the leading indicator. When usage lags revenue, this predicts churn. As you churn more and more users, it becomes harder and harder (and eventually impossible) to replace those churned users with new users to keep revenue metrics flat. Look at Blue Apron’s valuation to see this playing out currently as subscribers start to decrease for the first time year over year.
You Want Your Revenue Model To Align As Closely As Possible To The Value You Create
Lastly, as you start charging customers to capture value you create, you want your business model to align to the value that is being created. Email marketing tools have mastered this. Email marketing tools’ value is based on reaching customers with messages. Most email marketing tools charge on a CPM (i.e. a price for every thousand emails you send via their platform). As your email volume increases, they continue to drop the CPM. This make these companies more money because customers are sending a lot more email over time. But it actually becomes more valuable to the customer as well, because email is now cheaper on a per unit basis to send.
Compare this to Mixpanel, a product analytics tool. Mixpanel charges per event, and their value is delivering insights based on data from events being logged on your website or mobile app. The more events that are tracked in Mixpanel, the more insights the customer can receive, and the stickier the product. Since Mixpanel is charging per event though, a weird calculus emerges for the customer. The customer has to ask if tracking this event is worth the cost because not all events are created equal. Meaning the customer has to decide which data is important before they use the product. So, Mixpanel’s revenue model actually hurts its product value.
It’s easy for subscription businesses to get attracted to the allure of short term revenue. The goal of your business is first to create value. The creation of that value and the understanding of how it’s created allow for more optimal and sustainable revenue generation opportunities. Don’t pursue short term revenue opportunities that prevent the customer from understanding the value your company creates. When you are generating revenue, you want to align that revenue model to how value is created for your customer. If you’re not sure, err on the side of creating more value than you capture rather than the opposite. This leads to long term retention and the maximization of revenue.
Naomi Ionita, General Partner at Menlo Ventures and former growth leader at Invoice2go and Evernote, and I talk more about this and other subscription growth problems in the Greymatter podcast.
*This quote I believe originally stems from Brian Erwin.
Currently listening to Shape the Future by Nightmares on Wax.