The Customer That Needs a Champion: Your Free Customers

I am a big believe in Free editions — when they work.

At EchoSign, we launched not only with a Free edition, but we launched 100% Free.  We thought it was a great marketing strategy, back in the day.  It really wasn’t for a B2B product.  At least, not at first.  Just having a “Free” version doesn’t get millions of folks to use your product.  Not usually.  Don’t fall into that trap.

It got us like 10 free users at first.  That didn’t pay the bills.

But we kept it.  Mainly because we loved free editions ourselves, and wanted to push the team to make a product so easy to use, it could be self-provisioned.

And over time, the Free Edition eventually achieved its goal.  We created 100,000+ happy, free edition ambassadors to spread the word.  We set a Zoom-like limit of 5 transactions per month.  We found that our average paid user sent about 8-10 contracts a month.  So we weren’t giving up much by letting folks do up to 5 e-signed contracts a month for free.

And while it wasn’t a marketing miracle in Year 1, over time it helped create brand.  And it enabled our more tech-focused customers to get comfortable trying on their own.  You can see the impact here, back in the day:

And then we were acquired by Adobe, and Adobe did a great job at many things.  They took a $1m a month / $12m ARR product and grew it to nine figures in ARR.  They hardened and spread it across the globe and did many things.

And one thing they also did almost the day I left?  They ripped out the free edition.  It’s gone.  (Well, you can still find it here if you want.  But it’s deeply buried).  They kept the free trial though (see below).

Why did they kill it so fast, if it had so many happy users?  Well, at that point there were probably 150 folks working part or full-time on the product.  And you know how many were compensated by the number of free users?  Zero.

  • Sales always hated the free edition.  It just created confusion as to why we had a free product, and also a product with $1m TCV customers.  The last thing sales wanted to do was accidentally get on the phone with a Free edition user.  Even the most junior SDRs and BDRs dreaded it.  So few of them would convert, and even if they did, it was for $15 a month!
  • Marketing hated the free edition.  They wanted to push everyone into a free trial instead.  A 15-day free trial is much better for marketing’s short term goals.  It quickly qualifies the lead for them.
  • Support really, really, really hated the free edition.  Not all of support.  But a lot of it.  Because every trouble ticket, every tweet, every complaint from a free edition user just took time away from paid customers.  Even if support was segmented.
  • Engineering didn’t really love free edition “customers” either.  They didn’t care too much, but it was also another set of workflows and issues to deal with.  By getting rid of it, a lot of onboarding issues could be offloaded to customer success and humans.  Free products have to be better than paid products, in many ways.

So my point is, the Free Edition had no champion except me — the CEO.

No one made their plan or KPIs or OKRs based on the Free Edition.  No one got high fives at the end of the quarter when we hit quota for free transactions.  There was no owner.

I could have and should have created one.  But even if I had, it would have been tough to penetrate our little C-suite if this VP of Free had no direct revenue contribution.

My only real point is a strategic one.  Free is overdone.  Most SaaS products simply aren’t viral enough, at least not with a high enough viral coefficient so that Free self-propagates quickly.   But when it works, often over time, it’s an amazing thing.  It’s a viral army of brand ambassadors.

But you the CEO may need to be the VP of Free Edition yourself.  No one else will care enough.

Published on August 18, 2019

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