I’m currently in the process of writing an article on product strategy, and I had the desire to add in it, a case study of a company that illustrates the best my thoughts. In this context, I reached out to Yam, co-founder and CEO of Zest, a knowledge-building platform that I’ve been using for a while, to interview him.
While I was re-listening to our interview, I felt like it would be worthwhile transcribing it as we covered a wide range of topics around product and growth strategy and the future of the EdTech industry.
I hope you’ll enjoy it! ✌️
Maxime: Since your launch almost three years ago now, Zest has been growing quickly and sustainably. Could you share with us a bit about the initial vision you had with your co-founder for Zest?
Yam: As far as we see, my co-founder and I, agreed since the beginning that we were not looking for this kind of hockey stick graph. It’s not interesting for us, we did it before, and we saw that in most cases it’s not last for long and it doesn’t improve your own lifetime value (LTV).
Most of the time this strategy is scalable but not sustainable. What we decided early was not to build an MVP but an MRP, standing for Most Retainable Product. We didn’t say it for buzzword, but it is genuinely part of our DNA. It was clear to us that the more retainable our product would be the better. So, we adopted this retention-first approach.
Maxime: Retention-first as opposed to acquisition-first approach, right?
Yam: Yes, you have to think about added value and not thinking about funnel anymore. You should think about the cohort and not about generating a lot of traffic that will most probably end up with a drop of users.
Maxime: It reminds me of the “leaky bucket” analogy that highlights the often made mistake in which, early-stage startups focus on always pouring more money to get more traction on their product before ensuring its stickiness.
Yam: Yeah. For fresh initiatives and startups to generate solid funnel with optimization and proper user journey it requires a lot of resources and most startups — including us — don’t have the capacity to do it. We knew it wasn’t the right thing to do for us.
We came up with some specific perspectives tailored to Zest that have worked well for us but might not be right for everyone else. I think growth and go-to-market (GTM) methodologies are like your fingerprints. If it worked for me, it doesn’t mean it will work for you by simply copying and pasting. Actually, it 100% won’t. What you need to do is to take some principles and then modify, optimize, chew it a little bit and then adjust it with your own biology.
“What you need to do is to take some principles and then modify, optimize, chew it a little bit and then adjust it with your own biology.” — Yam Regev
Maxime: In order to build a sustainable growth strategy Brian Balfour, through his Growth Loop concept, recommends to answer the following question “How does one cohort of users lead to another cohort of users?” Is he one of your sources of inspiration?
Yam: Yes, we read about Brian Balfour and also Nir Eyal on the Hooked methodology. We believe that thinking about this retention-first mechanism is something you should do very early, if not one of the first things.
One more thing, we think that retention shouldn’t rely only on features. In our case, building up a retention methodology came with the form of the destination itself. What we chose to do is to take the chrome tab extension as the prime destination for us and tried to tailor it for what Zest is here for.
So, Zest is a knowledge building platform for professionals that distill content from the web with a high focus on defining what good content is and perfectly match it with each end-user. That required us to determine 1) what is knowledge — probably one of the holy grails of the web — then 2) to figure out how professionals are interacting with knowledge and finally 3) to merge them together.
To build our machine learning system, we needed to know what is knowledge. So, on one side of the gradient, we have content, and on the other hand, we have knowledge. To make our distilling engine work appropriately, we need to answer the two following questions:
- what’s the finest content that’s been thrown away in the distillery?
- what’s the finest knowledge that has been distilled in?
How do we handle that at Zest? It’s all about user fuel process where the users themselves have been a function as the filter touchpoint for the content. It means that we’re not aggregating the web by using RSS or all these kind of amateur-related actions that most products use today. It’s not about the quantity but the quality.
To engage the users a little bit more, we said that we needed to find a way to force them to spend time using our product. And this is where the idea of the destination decision came from. When users use the chrome tab extension, we knew that the first months drop off in our cohort would be huge as it makes our product very intrusive. However, we also knew that whoever would survive after the first few days would probably stick with our product for long.
“We believe that thinking about this retention-first mechanism is something you should do very early, if not one of the first things.” — Yam Regev
Maxime: Is that something that turned out to be true in term of numbers? Could you share with us some of Zest’s early retention metrics?
Yam: We launched almost three years ago and have relatively close to 100,000 users. Today, we have around 20,000 weekly active users, and our cohort shows that on week eight our retention is 25%. It’s almost the best as you can get knowing the intrusiveness of our product. And all of that has been achieved by bootstrapping and with a team of 2 founders and three employees.
Maxime: Hearing about Zest’s growth story, it feels like you’ve always been thinking of building an ecosystem much more than a product. Could you tell us more about Zest community?
Yam: Actually, we don’t call it a community. We understood that it is more than a community. At the highest level, you have the crowd, then you have communities, and in our case, we felt like it is more than that, that’s why we called it a tribe. We define a tribe as a community who actionizes an agenda. It means that the tribe is an integral part of the product; without the tribe, Zest product does not exist.
The whole thing is to empower self-learners by providing them with the best micro-learning path using the distill content that we have on the platform and suggested by other users.
Maxime: The growth of your tribe follows a network effect pattern. Can you share with us how did you kick it off?
Yam: When we asked various persons on what we should do to kick-off, they said that we should automate everything and do things that scale.
Maxime: Quite the opposite of Paul Graham’s famous Do Things That Don’t Scale article…
Yam: So we tried that, and it was a very awful experience where we understood we were doing something wrong, but we didn’t know what. Once we took off all the automation tools that we had — including thank you messages after users suggested an article — and started to communicate one-on-one with users, I began to understand the users’ jargon, pain points and what’s missing.
Shifting to this philosophy also came with downsides; one of them was that it took longer for our users to have their suggested content approved. But we saw in it an opportunity to involve our users; we told them if they wanted to help, just go ahead, join us and become someone who moderates content or help us to write for our content marketing and ultimately that’s how it came.
We’ve been very authentic, vulnerable and transparent. I call it the VAT methodology: be Vulnerable, Authentic and Transparent. Disclaimer: it’s not what most people want, but apparently it’s what professionals are requiring. They can see your flaws, and they just want to feel the warmth of your hand on their shoulder, not in a creepy way but in a way that they will understand there is a person out there that hears them, hears their thoughts, implements their feedback and lets them be part of the whole thing. We also created this vast User Advisory Board (UAB) that integrates our members with our product roadmap, our business model, etc. Ultimately, they are controlling the ship.
“I call it the VAT methodology: be Vulnerable, Authentic and Transparent.” — Yam Regev
Maxime: What is your main acquisition channel?
Yam: Until today the biggest acquisition channel that we have is word of mouth. If you adopt a proper retention-first approach, the outcome should be a very solid word of mouth channel. If you’re working with professionals, as they are networkers, they will speak about your product and might be even proud of being a beta user or simply user. I remember Lemonade’s founder Shay Wininger sharing their approach about building an MWP standing for Minimal Wow-able Product. It’s all about the experience and trying to build a solid product with an appealing UI.
Fun fact, we know today that one of our source of acquisition is when our users go to the bathroom or for lunch for instance and leave their screen on Zest; their colleagues see something that looks good and professional, and that’s how the magic happens.
“If you adopt a proper retention first approach, the outcome should be a very solid word of mouth channel.” — Yam Regev
Maxime: You’re launching in a few days your new premium product, Zest Enlight, through a beta launch, why did you opt for this type of product launch strategy?
Yam: First off, we initially launched Zest through a private beta as well. But Zest Enlight is the real promise of Zest. It is a mobile app that requires a lot of data to keep improving our understanding of how professionals are consuming knowledge to create models between profiles.
That’s what Zest Enlight does, it creates for you a micro-learning path on a daily basis to quickly improve your talent away from the content noise. The interest in doing a private beta is that I think it is the best combination between product and marketing.
Beta has a few known advantages such as the easiness to provide feedback and to sharpen up your MVP but, more than that, it allows us to create a native group, within the big tribe, that we call micro-tribe of every Zest Enlight users that will function as the beating heart of the product. These users will help us not only to make a better product, because again it is a network effect type of product but also to spread it out. That is what is happening now as we speak, the KPI for our closed beta was set to 2,000, and we recently crossed the 5,500 beta helpers. We managed to create this Viral Loop effect.
Maxime: I can bear witness to that based on my LinkedIn feed filled with Zest Enlight evangelists.
Yam: It went out of control for us, but in my opinion, it’s not only because of the promise of the product but also because of something far bigger than the product. We create a movement that is all about speaking about self-learners. You know as a professional I don’t have a proper educational background, I almost didn’t finish school, I’m a University drop-out and super dyslexic, so my only way to build knowledge is through bite-sized kind of content such as articles, podcasts, and videos.
Ultimately, with Zest Enlight, we want to make sure that the few contents our users will read or listen to each day will match their career path and professional goals and not make them waste their time.
Maxime: It feels like Zest wants to be a key player in the EdTech revolution that is happening. With a traditional education system becoming more and more outdated and very far behind the new generation’s expectations, big opportunities lie in this industry.
Yam: I think that education is going to be, and it has already started to be, the next huge industry where billions of dollars will be invested in the EdTech. In the education industry, you have school education, university education and then the post-university education — the latter is the one we are targeting at Zest.
The current solutions in professional education that exist are trying to solve it from top-down. They are going to the HR department of big corporations to sell their services such as learning management system. Conversely, what Zest does when it comes to go-to-market strategy (GTM) is going bottom-up. Individuals first adopt our product within the companies, and once dozens of employees are using it, then we can go up to the management to sell it widely.
“Conversely, what Zest does when it comes to go-to-market strategy (GTM) is going bottom-up.” — Yam Regev
Maxime: Another interesting aspect I see through Zest is the idea behind in which you decided to leverage and distill the best pieces of content that are already out there on the web instead of creating your own content, which is what most learning platforms do.
Yam: Most web-based professions like marketing, development, design, customer success, etc. are all being updated almost on a daily basis. Not only professionals need to build up their knowledge, but they also need to keep up with trends to stay ahead of their industry. I think that with courses the problem is that they become quickly obsolete and after, let’s say, two months, 20% of them are not updated anymore. I’m also not talking about how hard it is to consume 20h+ of online course.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.