The Growth Tactics That Worked For Me in Early Days. We’re All Different, Though.

I personally was terrible at many growth tactics, growing Adobe Sign / EchoSign. I didn’t know much about anything other than direct sales at the time. I’ve sure learned a lot since.

However, there were a few things I/we were relatively good at early on:

  • Integrations. We were in the first batch of apps to integrate with Salesforce on AppExchange, several years ahead of competition. We did the same with Box, Zoho, WebEx, NetSuite, SugarCRM, Oracle, Conga, Apttus … basically any app we could find with a reasonably open API. In the end, this becomes table stakes. Everyone has to do this eventually. But if you can get out ahead of the market here, you can get brought into, and win, a lot of deals just because you are the only decent vendor at the table.
  • Press and PR. By getting out early, this seemed to perform. We weren’t amazing at it, but back in the day, no one except Box in SaaS could get much press anyway. We did a good job getting in TechCrunch and other pubs at the right time to get a boost.
  • Being in the Bay Area. With hindsight, this helped a lot.  Today, it might not matter as much. Our key competitor ultimately moved to SF, but for a while, it was our backyard. It just made partnerships and tech customer visits easier. We would drop by Google, Salesforce, Facebook, etc. all the time. It’s hard if your HQ is somewhere else to do that as effectively. It takes time to see the benefit, but it’s real.
  • Being Present. It took me a long time to realize this mattered. But I tried to be at every important event in our industry. Especially before you have a big brand, this really helps reinforce a “mini-brand”. Get out there. But only go to what matters. Don’t go to second-tier conferences, or second-tier anything. But be wherever your key partners, customers, and colleagues are.
  • Ease-of-use. Everyone says they are easy to use, but for all our faults, we really did have a profoundly easy to use product. This helps a lot with tech-focused customers and early adopters. Later, perhaps it’s less important with large enterprise customers. Our advantage here probably lasted 5–6 years.
  • Running the tables in a few verticals. Again, a slight accident, but this works. It took us 2 years to close Google, but then we quickly closed Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and tons of other peers. The same with the insurance vertical, and for a while, telecom. Take that happy reference account and go tell all the others in the space about it.
  • Getting very good at in-bound sales. We optimized a strong team around high-velocity in-bound sales, that could even stretch easily to $300k+ deals. That was our sweet spot up to $12m-$15m ARR or so. We got very good at it. Maybe less good at other stuff ($1m+ deals), but very good at medium and high velocity in-bound sales.
  • Making smart bets on the product roadmap. We had a small engineering team, so we had to make bets that really would matter. For example, we were 2+ years ahead of the competition on localization, because this turned out to be critical in our market.
  • Sticking to our knitting. Later, this can be a weakness, but we stuck to the spaces and segments where we were strong. We didn’t spend a lot of time trying to win or expand into segments where we had very little traction, except for small experiments. This dramatically lowered our CAC and made scaling much easier. By $10m-$20m ARR, you probably need to expand to spaces where you are weaker, though.
  • Tenacity. Finally, looking back, tenacity was our best growth tactic. Growth was tough in the early days, and didn’t truly get consistent until $5m-$6m ARR or so. I could finally breathe then. Sticking to the vision, pushing the roadmap ahead, investing in customers even when the deal size seemed small … that made the difference. Looking back, what made this work was for a long time, we had very high NPS and happy customers, even with many challenges. When you have that — double down on your existing customers. It takes time, but eventually, they will bring you many more.

But we weren’t great at a lot of things I’d do ASAP today:

  • Outbound.  Back then, I didn’t really understand the SaaS SDR playbook.  Yes, we were swimming in leads.  But I missed we could target key accounts, and aim higher in the org, if we did Outbound right.  Or maybe even really, at all.  A bit more here.
  • Customer marketing.  We should have done a lot, lot more of this with 130%+ NRR.  Now we know this is the heart of building a decacorn.  But almost everything we did in marketing was demand gen.  Fortunately, our head of customer success was strong, so that backfilled a bit here.  More on that here.
  • Using capital as a weapon to win in spaces where we were weaker.  Capital efficiency is great, but it also led us to shy away from markets where we had some customers, but mostly lost.  Today, I’d play more dominant-dominant strategy and use capital to win even in spaces where we were weaker.  More on that here.  More here.
  • Going more enterprise.  I should have done everything here, all the SOC-2s, and DRs, HIPAA, and more, and embraced pilots more aggressively.  We should have had a CISO or similar before $10m ARR, as well as a general counsel, given how many bigger deals we were doing.  We did all this, but not as quickly as we could have or should have.  We did it when we had to.  But we should have gotten ahead of it.  Do that right, and it’s actually a great marketing strategy.  To be “The Most Enterprise” vendor in a space.

So the lesson learned perhaps is be true to yourself.  You are at least relatively better at some customer-generation activities in the early days.  Lean in more there.  Even if they only work a little bit … that’s something.  And you’ll just get better at what you know works a bit.

Then bring in VPs that know the rest of the playbook.  And watch it grow, expand and scale from there.

(note: an updated SaaStr Classic post)

Published on April 25, 2021

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