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Initial thoughts on how to overcome “customer-built” software’s learning curve

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Bring together go-to-market leaders from leading no/low code (a.k.a. “customer-built”) software companies, and eventually, you’ll land on the same topic: the challenge of user activation.

While this is a hot topic behind closed doors, I think it’s relatively under-discussed more broadly. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it’s because customer onboarding feels like a “solved problem” in SaaS. And for vertical SaaS, that’s probably true. For vertical SaaS, customer onboarding is all about decreasing time-to-value. While the tactics leveraged may be unique (in-product onboarding tips, seamless integrations with adjacent tools etc.), the goal is always the same. And as long as there’s product-market fit, any competent growth product team can execute on those tactics to great effect.

But what do you do when, like with customer-built products, the “value” isn’t created by your product, but by the end users? What do you do when the end users are meant to build something of value themselves using the primitives you’ve designed?

Talk to go-to-market leaders from firms like Notion, Zapier and Miro and you’ll realize quickly that the answer is…nobody knows. There’s no onboarding playbook to follow. Lots of tactics are being experimented with as we speak. Templates galore. High-touch onboarding teams. Education pros with high-production video studios. But despite all this effort, it’s still unsolved. There’s a reason this topic keeps coming up again and again. Every single customer-built product I know struggles to activate new users.

I don’t have a playbook for you (though I wish I did). But I’ve compiled some preliminary thoughts on how you might get started if you’re trying to figure this out yourself:

1. To start, make sure to segment your users correctly.

With customer-built software, your users are building their own products using the primitives that you’ve designed. What this means is that some of your users will be builders, but many will just be users. They’ll use the tools that the builders create, but won’t build anything themselves. And many more will just be viewers of whatever system has been built.

In other words, a single definition of an “activated user” won’t work. An activated “builder” will look different than an activated “user,” which will look different than an activated “viewer.”

What might they look like? And how might you go about tracking them?

  • An activated “builder” should be a sophisticated user of your product. They should have built something that they use consistently, and if your product is collaborative, they should have built something that gets consistent usage from other users as well. (As an aside, this is where you can start leveraging classic SaaS metrics to help you understand the depth of value your builder has created. What’s the DAU/MAU or DAU/WAU for the tool they’ve built? How has the number of users and viewers grown over time? What’s the retention?)
  • An activated “user” should be a sophisticated user of the system that the builder created. Even if they aren’t building anything new themselves, are they consistently using the system the builder created? How consistently? Also consider: how can you level-up their product sophistication over time? Could they become a “builder” themselves some day?
  • An activated “viewer” is much more difficult to track (depending on how you instrument your event tracking). They may still be helpful in driving expansion, however, so keeping a pulse on how many people are engaging with your product, even as viewers, is valuable. Similar to with a “user,” ask yourself: are they starting to use/update/engage withthe system built by the “builder”? Might they level up and become a “user”? How can you encourage that behavior?

Yes, this is all much more fussy than simply finding one definition of “activated’ and sticking to it. But one thing is clear. Different segments will need your help in different ways. And the earlier you can identify what segment a user might fit into, the earlier you can help them accelerate down the right path.

As an example, builders will need your help leveling-up their product sophistication. And they’re probably so important to your product’s adoption and expansion within an account, that you should be willing to invest significantly (e.g. 1:1 onboarding sessions) in their success.

On the other hand, “users” or “viewers” are your biggest churn risks. They’ll likely need to interact with your product day-to-day (e.g. engaging with the tool built by the “builder”), but because they aren’t power users, they probably feel overwhelmed by the flexibility of the product. Be aware. Look out for churn. And think of ways you can simplify their experience.

(This section is making me think it’s worth writing an entire post on the metrics that matter for customer-built products. Coming soon…)

2. Next, iterate on tactics from category leaders.

Companies like Airtable, Notion, Zapier and Webflow are all desperately trying to solve this problem. Good news for us, because we can watch what they do, and build on it. Here are a few themes to get you started:

Experiment with templates: templates are everywhere these days, but I still think they’ve got a few tricks up their sleeves. Two ideas:

  • Templates can show users what’s possible, but they can also show users how to get there. Consider building templates at different levels of completeness and sophistication, and serving them up to users at different points in their journey (or at different moments in the sales cycle).
  • Templates don’t just serve as points of reference, they also serve as inspiration. So don’t just rely on ideas your team comes up with. Crowdsource real examples from the community. Check out Airtable’s Universe, Coda’s Gallery or the 3rd party site Notionery.

Test out high-touch onboarding: if you can identify potential “builders” (or at least high potential LTV customers) relatively well, it may be worth experimenting with high-touch onboarding (a 30–45 minute personal onboarding call, which may include anything ranging from a generic demo to a live building session). Many customer-built software companies have experimented with building “onboarding” teams to test this out. The question to ask yourself: do you think you can improve activation rates, upgrade rates and account expansion speed enough to make building this sort of team worthwhile? The math is hard to make work, especially if you have a free tier for your product, but depending on your ACV it may be a worthwhile experiment.

Abstract away product complexity: customer-built products are designed for the builder, but many need to attract the “users” and “viewers” to drive expansion revenue (depending on the pricing model). Leaders in the space are starting to launch features that abstract away the core product’s complexity, simultaneously empowering builders and simplifying the experience for users and viewers. One recent example is Airtable’s new Interface Designer.

These are just some initial ideas. No answers yet. But if customer-built products want to evolve from being products for power users to the mass-market platforms for software creation they aspire to be…they’ll need to figure out the activation and onboarding problem. Let’s see who can crack it first.

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