Our Zero Dollar Marketing Strategy for Enterprise Software

Last year, we came up with a radical growth hack: give our enterprise software away for free.

Our hypothesis was simple. If students used ZenHub to manage software projects at school, they would demand tools of the same caliber after graduation, spreading our gospel as they moved into the workplace. We would create brand ambassadors out of university students. I thought the idea was insane, but my team convinced me to give it a try.

Last week, they were proven right.

My cofounder and I were presenting at a major bank on the East Coast, outlining our recommended software development process for the bank’s division heads and product leads — or at least, that was the idea. Partway through the presentation one of the execs spoke up; he was responsible for the bank’s program to hire top tier talent, and he told us that part of his job was attracting top interns. His secret weapon was evangelizing the bank’s use of cutting-edge, premium tools: the kind of exciting software students explored in school. And what tool had this year’s crop of interns demanded the bank use? ZenHub.

We had secured enthusiastic brand ambassadors, without even knowing it. Needless to say, our new friend piping up made us look really good to the rest of the execs in the room.

We see a similar pattern playing out across our Fortune 500 customer base: as the war for technical talent heats up, companies are competing to provide the kind of pro-innovation, anti-waterfall environment favored by top creatives. Chief among the corporate leaders’ playbook is allowing developers and designers to use best-in-class tools — even from startups like ours. Gone are the days when the doors of the Fortune 500 procurement departments opened only from golf courses.

Freemium business models aren’t a new concept — you give a basic version of your product away for free, and then establish a “premium” paid model once customers are hooked. But savvy sales teams are taking that a step further, making that premium experience free to students. Amazon, Microsoft, GitHub, and of course ZenHub all ascribe to this new philosophy. Students are the best PR you’ll ever get.

We weren’t the only company who used to overlook these potential allies. Many businesses make the mistake of prioritizing students the least, ignoring them in regards to customer service, and often pricing their products so high students resort to free copycats (or, let’s face it, pirated copies). What these businesses fail to remember is that the phrase ‘students are the future’ isn’t just a tired metaphor. The students of today will be working at the software companies of the future, building their own businesses, entering summer internships at large companies, and most importantly, bringing their favourite tools with them. They’ll introduce their new coworkers to the tools and processes they’ve grown to love over the course of their education.

We started supporting students to give back to our community; our original drive was to do good in recognition of all the people who helped us. It was a pleasant surprise to realize that, especially in today’s environment, students exert a massive influence on the companies that seek to attract them. Building loyalty early is a long-term but incredibly rewarding approach to customer acquisition.