How 3 Enterprise Startups Found Their Product By Understanding Jobs-To-Be-Done

This Harvard Business School professor’s marketing model gives insight on how Slack, DocuSign and Zenefits understood their customer and achieved success.


“When people find themselves needing to get a job done, they essentially hire products to do that job for them.” Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure by Clayton M. Christensen, Scott Cook and Taddy Hall

In the essay, Christensen claims that “some of the fundamental paradigms of marketing — the methods that most of us learned to segment markets, build brands, and understand customers — are broken.” His answer is to focus on customers’ “jobs-to-be-done.” Simply by understanding the jobs which arise in customers’ lives for which they might hire products, therefore becomes the key objective for a product innovator.

For another day: who’s drinking milkshakes for breakfast? (Image from Babble)

Christensen illustrates his theory with the example of a fast-food chain trying to improve its milkshake sales. The researcher’s initial segmentation analysis by product, demographics and other personality characteristics led to the creation of customer focus groups composed of frequent milkshake customers. Though the groups offered clear feedback, the subsequent improvements had no impact on sales. Taking a different approach, the researcher set out to understand the “jobs,” which customers were trying to get done when they “hired a milkshake.” This approach led to the breakthrough observation that 40% of customers purchased milkshakes in the morning. Customers were using them as empty calories to stave off hunger during a boring, lengthy commute. Using this insight, the fast-food chain made the shakes thicker so that they would last longer during the long commute. They also swirled in chunks of fruit to add a dimension of unpredictability into the commuter’s monotonous morning routine.


Enterprise startups have succeeded by understanding jobs-to-be-done

The essence of Christensen’s framework is that you should aim to have a deeper understanding of what your customer is trying to achieve, his “job,” and create a product to do that job better. Though this strategy is most famously employed in the consumer space, it has been successfully repeated again and again in enterprise.

Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2015, Slide 28

Three startups in particular have truly internalized a root-level understanding of their customer’s job and innovated to focus on addressing that job, rather than the segment or existing products.

1) Slack is for internal communication, not email

Slack is a team communication platform which journalists love to call, “an email killer.” The actual truth is that if Slack had framed their customer’s job as email they would’ve created a boring email client and the world would be no better. Thankfully, Stewart Butterfield realized that internal communication was the real job lurking behind Outlook and created Slack to fulfill that goal. Features such as the ability to receive notifications from other systems on code check-ins, errors, sales calls and support requests support this higher-level focus on internal communication.

2) DocuSign has fueled growth through specific “jobs” in verticals

DocuSign initially launched in 2003 as a solution for legally binding electronic signatures. In the highly competitive e-signature market, DocuSign has distanced itself as of late and continues to fuel its growth engine by expanding in a variety of verticals. Rather than solely focusing on just an e-signature product, it has built out features that help its customers in construction and real estate complete tasks like submitting RFPs and selling homes. In this case, though DocuSign initially addressed a product category, their continued growth can be attributed to understanding and addressing the job of their customers, which isn’t necessarily e-signatures, but a larger job like selling a home.

3) Zenefits identified all HR administration as a “job” that needs a product

Zenefits has created an integrated HR platform for companies that manages employee benefits, payroll and other HR goodies. Had Zenefits taken the traditional marketing approach of understanding HR administration and segmenting products by health insurance, life insurance, payroll, and time off, they might’ve identified a specific segment that is particularly attractive like life insurance. This would’ve led Zenefits to create a better life insurance platform. Instead, Zenefits identified the job of HR administration and holistically built a product to handle ALL HR tedium so that an HR professional can focus their true job, finding talent and building culture.

What is most interesting is that each of these startups used the jobs-to-be-done framework differently: Slack used it to identify their core product purpose, DocuSign used it to improve their product in its verticals, and Zenefits used it to identify the primary tasks of its customer. Regardless of how it was used, the model effectively provided each startup the right perspective for which to view its market.


Your customer’s job is not to send faxes

Were you always wondering why there isn’t a SaaS fax service in the unicorn club? It should be clear at this point that it’s really no one’s job to send faxes. Your customer only sends faxes as part of a larger business process that can be considered a job. Improving the fax machine by bringing it into the cloud without understanding your customer’s real objective will take you nowhere.

Though insights drawn from a traditional study of a customer’s demographic or psychographic can help you learn more about the customer, they should not be the primary data point from which you determine needs and create products. By looking at the jobs that a customer wants to get done, you can learn the overarching objective of your customer; this job often cuts across demographics and has a much larger market opportunity. With this keen understanding, you can innovate, disrupt a product space and have your milkshake too.


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