The hardest thing about going from 0–1 is not building something, it’s getting people to care about your product. A successful go-to-market will create and amplify interest in using your product among your target customers. Without that, you don’t have a business.
Go-to-market generally refers to everything about how a product is positioned, packaged, marketed, and sold. However, the choices we make when building a product determine how we can sell it, for what price, and how effective our tactics will be.
The goal of this guide is to provide a concrete, human behavior-centered overview of how to build a sellable product. Each section ends with questions you can bring back to your team to help you figure out how to build a product you can sell.
These are insights I picked up from running product and growth at Slack, designing games at EA and my own venture-backed company, and investing in productivity & collaboration companies at Lightspeed Venture Partners.
If you take away just one thing from this guide, let it be this: People make decisions because of the way they feel.
This understanding, that emotions are the core drivers of action, underlines each of the sections. The truth is, everything is go-to-market: Your core product, your business model, your positioning, and your first customers. Let’s dive in.
Your core product is your go-to-market.
The ability of a brand new user to understand and complete the core workflows of a product determines whether your product delivers immediate value to your customers — Day 0 value. If a tool is not useful, people will simply not come back. This is what makes onboarding the most critical part of any growth strategy — successfully onboarded users retain well and go on to drive massive organic adoption.
Feelings of mastery + novelty drive sharing.
Mastering a new workflow makes people feel in control, like This just works. That feeling is why great onboarding kickstarts organic growth and expansion. Before there’s a team, a single person has to have a great experience using the product and want to share it with other people. This is especially true for messaging and other networked products, where the product grows in value with each person who uses it.
Products that give people a feeling of mastery the first time they use it make people feel especially in control. People love to feel as if they are in control.
Determine what the top 2–4 capabilities or workflows of your product are, and use those as the onboarding experience. Focus on delivering that value immediately.
Novelty, what a delight
When we say “surprise and delight” or “product polish” we really mean the feeling of This is cool that accompanies a novel experience. Novelty is an emotional state that amplifies and complements someone’s feelings of mastery. Your product has to ✨work✨and it has to work.
Novel experiences don’t have to be totally new capabilities, but they can be. It can be a familiar UI or workflow that’s super responsive and smooth, or unexpectedly good customer service.
These positive emotional experiences cue people’s desire to reach out socially and share their experience with their social group. People want to both be seen feeling masterful and they seek to affirm their positive experience by checking in, This is cool… right?
Lean into positive emotional experiences
- Prominent in-product invites can capture the intent to share socially when someone has a particularly good moment in the product.
- Follow-up emails and social push notifications should deliver actions that create customer value instead of trying to “educate” your customer on the product. Show don’t tell.
Deliver value first and then people will be willing to suffer through friction like an app download
[We] changed the emails to deliver on the value we promised in the first experience, instead of telling users what we thought was important about the product. This shift increased activation rates. And once the core value is reinforced, you can actually introduce more friction to deepen the value created. When web signups clicked on this content on their mobile devices, we asked them to get the app, and because they were now confident in the value, they did get the app. Conversely, sending an email asking users to get the app alone led to more unsubscribes than app downloads.
Lag kills good feelings
Lack of performance (slowness, data loss) destroys the feeling of mastery. The resulting emotional state, I should be in control but I’m not! makes people feel angry.
To a lesser extent than lag, broken product promises and lack of customer service destroys feelings of affinity that a customer has with your brand. This rupture of brand affiliation is especially clear when customers go to cancel your service. If you make people hate your company while they’re canceling, you’re burning an opportunity to win them back in the future.
Resurrection of product qualified users is a growth lever you will want to use, but one you can easily negate by treating former customers with disrespect.
All the rage
Perversely, people love to feel angry. Anger is a powerful, action-oriented feeling that gives people the illusion of being back in control. Being in control makes people feel good, and just as in the case of a great experience, they want to share that feeling with their social group.
This is why reviews are often split between 1 star and 5 stars — the quantifiable outcome of your customers’ emotional states.
Some questions for you & your team
- What are the core workflows of our product?
- What of those are exceptionally good or novel?
- What social opportunities (sharing, invites, referrals, app reviews) can we create when people are at an emotional high?
- How do we want people to feel when they use the product?
- How might we evoke and amplify those feelings with our brand/design/product voice?
- How might we share a high quality product experience with non-users?
Your business model is your go-to-market.
The opportunity and risk of a self-service product is that anyone can sign up and immediately start using the tool. It becomes very important to position and package the product correctly so that prospective customers form the right assumptions about what the product experience will be like.
Enterprise sales creates the opportunity to focus on a few key decision makers and influence them instead of the mass market. It’s much easier to hone a message for individual stakeholders from an existing go-to-market built for a much broader base; conversely it’s very hard to broaden a message tuned to individual stakeholders into a message that will inspire broader adoption. This is why many companies have successfully led with self-service and been able to turn on both channel and enterprise sales later.
Individuals adopt tools
Even for network-based tools like collaboration apps, every team begins with a single person. The single-player onboarding experience has to be great, and it should be very easy for people to send invites or share the tool. It’s easier to get a customer who is already willing to send one invite to send five invites than it is to get someone who’s ambivalent to send any at all.
Free trials or freemium
Free trials allow users to get time-boxed access to the full suite of features in your tool. This can be great for things like analytics dashboards, where allowing people to freely explore their own data in your app provides the best user experience possible. Free trials can make sense for heavily single-player experiences, such as niche tooling.
However, free trials have considerable drawbacks for multiplayer and social experiences. When someone first checks out a tool, they may not yet be ready to start using it. People tend to try new products once they’ve consciously and unconsciously heard about them many times. The timing of adopting a new tool is not always at the moment of clearest need, but often just the coincidence of brand awareness.
When teams start optimizing free trials, they find that they convert incrementally more users for each day they extend the free trial. The longer the free trial, the more people will eventually convert. A free trial is about the company’s timeline and freemium is about the customer’s timeline.
Freemium business models gate features and/or usage while allowing people to experience the basic toolset for free, forever. These products do best when they gate access to information. The need to search or access paywalled messages drove Slack’s paid conversion, and the utility of a message archive to a company only grew the longer the company used the tool for free.
Freemium feature packaging
Freemium business models gate features and/or usage while allowing people to experience the basic toolset for free, forever. These products do best when they gate access to information or capabilities useful to people at work.
For Slack, the utility of a company’s message archive only grew the longer the company used the tool for free. The more people joined the team, the more quickly the archive would grow. Slack’s value to customers and the customer’s value to Slack grew together over time.
Canva is a tool for social media marketers that (in part) gates payment on using custom fonts and templates. This is a great balance between allowing a huge pool of potential paying customers to become comfortable with the product while charging for the features most appropriate in a work context.
Workplaces are de facto hierarchical — this produces counter-intuitive social behavior.
There’s a 1:1 relationship between the “rank” of someone in a workforce with the social capital they stand to lose by recommending your product. Junior folks in well-respected departments/professions are more generous with their recommendations.
Everyone wants to feel like a respected member of a winning team.
Even managers depend on the group at-large for a sense of belonging and value — maybe even more so than individual contributors. This is why you don’t need to specifically focus on selling to managers. Yes, it’s their credit card. But it’s their ego, too. They want to be liked, and if their team wants a tool, they’ll try to buy it for them.
Some questions for you & your team
- What are the advantages for us of a free trial model?
- What are the advantages for us of a freemium model?
- Once adopted by an individual (free or paid), how might we expand between teams of people with the same goal or manager?
Your positioning is your go-to-market.
When anyone can sign up and immediately start using the tool, it’s very important to position and package the product correctly. Positioning is how you tell customers what your product is.
“Positioning uses what people know, to help them understand what they don’t.”
Like notes played by an orchestra, small moments and interactions should support the same melody: This tool is for you.
- Listing popular integrations tells folks that it’s a tool for them, because they use the tools that it integrates with.
- Social proof in the form of company logos and/or customer stories tells similar companies and individuals that it’s a tool for them, because people like them use it already. The “cooler” the companies or people you use for product testimonials, the better. People want to feel cool and want to be affiliated with coolness.
Jargon is binary.
Industry specific jargon can be a powerful way to either convince visitors that it’s worthwhile to try the product, or confuse folks and make them feel stupid. People hate to feel stupid.
It’s easy to get positioned exactly where you don’t want to be, especially if you’re creating a new category for something that already exists. Dunford uses email and chat as an example in a post about not letting your customers position your product:
Telling me your product is “email”, makes me assume it’s similar to other email solutions. I will expect your competitors to be GMail or Outlook and your pricing will be similar. I will expect it to have an inbox and a way to filter spam. On the other hand, if you tell me your product is “chat” I will make completely different assumptions and I will expect your competitors, pricing, and features to be different. From a purely product perspective, chat and email have many overlapping capabilities: both send and receive messages to one or more people, both let you manage a list of contacts, both indicate read and unread messages, etc. However, each has critical capabilities that are vastly different. Those capabilities enable different uses. The business models are very different. Despite the overlap, “Chat” and “Email” are utterly different market categories in the minds of customers.
At Slack we had a saying: “Chat is cheap.”
We never used “chat” to describe what we were building. Rather, it was “a messaging app for teams” and later the more abstract and broader “Where work happens” once we’d shifted into delivering our platform experience. This early positioning helped us package the product at a substantially higher price point than products that were nearly indistinguishable from us on a per-feature basis.
Some questions for you & your team
- How might we position our product?
- Are we the best tool in an established category? What are similar tools and popular capabilities?
- Are we creating a new category? What’s our anti-positioning and how do we prevent it?
Your first customers are your go-to-market.
It’s critical to start with the right set of early customers to kick off all the self-reinforcing growth cycles we’ve discussed above. You have to start by knowing who your best early customers will be — for productivity/collaboration companies that’s often knowledge workers on remote and distributed teams, and often engineers.
Identify influential early adopters for productivity & collaboration apps that work for your product
- Teams of knowledge workers.
- Teams with strong engineering (or marketing or sales or design) cultures.
- Companies with great reputations that can become lighthouse customers. You’ll want these logos on your marketing website by the time we hit GA.
- CEOs/founders/VCs of collaboration and productivity companies, who are rabid users of new tools.
- Journalists and bloggers who write about work tool & collaboration trends.
Identify people with a keen need for a great product experience
Who has the problem that you’re solving? You can both describe people by role (eg, engineers, marketers, devops) or by their core workflows (eg people who use Excel all day, people who write SQL all day, people who use JIRA all day, people who talk to customers all day).
Understand the negative emotional states that drive people to seek new tools
People often search for new solutions when they’re in a negative emotional state. You can describe potential early customers by the severity and nuance of their emotional state, eg people under time pressure to solve problems, people who are responsible for outcomes, people who are frustrated with an existing tool, people who feel unable to control a process or workflow.
Treat your early adopters to high quality customer service
- Reach out to these folks with manual, personal outreach. We should also be ready with some light processes to keep track of our early adopters and provide a high quality experience to them.
- Respond to feedback immediately, not using macros.
- Track feature usage of early users.
- Track feature requests of early users and delivering them, then pinging those users to let them know we built it.
- Give them a limited number of invites and prioritizing their feature requests.
- Give them SWAG.
Brand launches are mostly pageantry and waitlists decay quickly
There’s no such thing as a 6 month old waitlist that’s still viable. Conversion rates on waitlists decay over days and weeks, not months. To capture broad interest, you have to be at GA.
Waitlists decay less slowly if you’re offering something of value that people want, like usernames or access to other limited resources. Past the first launch of a new product, feature launches for a generally available product can kick off a new cycle of earned media.
Some questions for you & your team
- What are specific influential early adopters and companies?
- Who are specific people with a keen need for a great product experience?
- What are forums or communities where we can find folks?
Thanks for reading!
I hope this guide is helpful to you and your team, whether you’re a founder (DM me!) or a craftsperson at an early stage technology company. Many thanks to the folks at Character and Lightspeed for helping bring this piece into public view. 🙏