This is the second part on an essay about finding traction channels prior to raising a Series A. For Part 1, take a read here.
We’re closing out 2019 with solid growth, but we know that we’re finding our best users by relying on paid channels through Instagram and Facebook. Our CAC isn’t totally unreasonable, but we understand that we need to diversify from paid and find more scalable ways to grow. Especially in the early days, LTV is a guess, so dependency on channels where CAC increases in the long run, while LTV often turns out to be lower than most founders initially pitch, is dangerous.
THE GROWTH THESIS
The first thing I did after fully committing myself to lead our growth is write our Growth Thesis. It’s an internal manifesto that’s been presented to the entire team about how we think about our customers, what we will and won’t do to reach them (and why), our customer segmentation and personas, etc. I didn’t have an explicit template in mind when I started it, but I ultimately covered a lot more about our organizational thesis than I thought I would (this reinforced the importance for me as a founder putting all this together).
Here are some highlights.
Identify growth principles
Catch is a complex product. We offer tax withholding, retirement investment, savings, and health insurance in one place. We’ve been compared to Gusto for a person, which is probably the closest X for Y analogy for the value proposition Catch offers.
In order to create growth for a product like this, I wrote down a number of principles for how we approach growth. Our core principle is that in order to succeed, we must have product-led growth (PLG). Blake Bartlett and the team at OpenView Ventures have a great playbook on PLG that gives a strong overview.
Summarized: it’s a go-to-market strategy that relies on product adoption and usage as the primary driver of acquisition.
What this means is that our growth thesis is inherently related to our product thesis — what we’re building, how, and why, ultimately has a massive impact on our ability to grow. Our product roadmap is a part of our growth strategy.
The guiding principles that we operate under in the context of creating product-led growth:
- We solve people’s problems: integration, privacy, security, and a focus on actually doing what someone needs done (as opposed to financial literacy and just reading about it)
- We build a great product: intentional experience, automation, appropriate friction, and the opportunity to delight
- We inspire trust: no sales-y cross-selling, good product recommendations, responsiveness in support, and taking ownership of user outcomes over process
- We augment authentic interaction: meet people where they are, reward word of mouth, amplify our supporters, and reach families first
- We segment with inclusion in mind: wealth is not worth, use meaningful metrics, drive returns plus impact, and help communities not corporations
Each of these principles has a few pages written about it that dives deeper into Catch-specific tenets. For example, one of the important sub-points of “We solve people’s problems” is that we serve people not companies. While you, reader, may agree or disagree with that strategy, having this principle written down helps narrow the focus and provide shared understanding for our team.
Determine your personas
Perhaps because we at Catch like to be contrarian, we couldn’t just take a normal approach and templatize our user segmentation. I started my career in consulting, and I’ve used dozens of different persona templates to help tease out “who is your customer?” and “what’s the value proposition of your product to this person?”
Perhaps because it was my first job, but I took this as the way things were done in business. I never found it particularly satisfying, though, because I felt like every company ended up with:
This is Millennial Miranda. She’s 29 and makes $55,000/year. She has a cat and likes to hang out with her friends at brunch on the weekend. She gets frustrated when she can’t figure out which restaurants have a wait.
There are flavors that crossover into B2B as well (Scott, our buyer, spends 1–3 hours per day on this workflow. His manager tells him he’s not getting things done fast enough. He works closely with the international QA team).
Blegh. Just blegh. Why does this feel so wrong? So two-dimensional?
Probably because Miranda isn’t a real person. Neither is Scott. Sure, they’re parts of real people — an amalgamation of characteristics that sort of kind of describe someone who may or may not use your product. But you’re often left with fairly limited insights as to how to actually acquire these “people.”
I understand the importance of segmentation, but at this stage in our existence, we’ve opted to avoid creating traditional personas. Why? Because of the flaw of averages. An average of a set (especially a large set) of averages narrows you down to exactly zero targets. There is a truly awesome write-up of this manifestation in the real world here.
What that means for personas is that if you have a dozen characteristics you’re averaging and rolling into a single persona (age, gender, income, occupation, etc. etc.) you’re likely to end up with a picture of a person who does not exist.
What we do instead, is that we build user LookBooks. We build profiles of real people in all of their quirky weirdness exactly as they are. Sarah may fit one segment by age, income, and occupation, but she has three kids and supports her aging parents. Most users in this segment have no kids or dependents. We don’t try to smooth out Sarah’s edges to make her into someone else.
Our goal with this process is to build an understanding that when you’re talking about people’s benefits (health insurance, retirement, tax filing status, savings, student debt), no one is normal. We all have inconsistencies that make us complex.
A note to our inevitable critics: I don’t purport to say that this method (or ANY of our methods) is right for every company, type of product, or stage, but it’s what helps us right now maintain a closeness with our real users when we see many other companies are quick to give up in favor of the simplified aggregator persona templates.
In addition to profiles, we also built out lists of descriptors for what our segments have in common. I started with what do all Catch users have in common? The answer was less than you might think. The only thing all Catch users have in common is that they don’t get the benefits they need from an employer. That’s it. Period.
The next list was by segment: what do we see is true for most users in a certain group. For some it’s tax filing status (ie 1099 vs. W2). For some it’s that they’re paid small amounts every few days from ecommerce or gig services. For some it’s that they’re about to have a baby and all of a sudden future-proofing their safety net becomes a much bigger deal. All of these groups share some characteristics and not others.
The final list showed us how different our users are. What’s true about any of our users? A few of our users are under 20 years old, a few are over 60. A few make less than $15,000 per year, a few make more than $300,000. A few have more than 6 kids. A few only get paid twice a year. All of this complexity means that we have to not only build agility into our product, but we have to build it into our growth strategy as well.
Building a growth strategy
As I mentioned, I started my career as a consultant, so I have a soft spot for frameworks. I truly believe that with the right thinking process, most business problems can be solved.
Rather than take one out of the box, I tried to use first principles to build a strategy technique that would make sense in the context of our business.
Starting with our goal, we’re trying to find a way to build organic, scalable growth. We don’t want to build strategy for how to get PR or optimize Facebook conversions, because those aren’t strategies to get a scalable plan. They are tactics and often hone in on the optimization of your growth.
Another Andy Johns shout-out in this second piece, because he’s written a really eloquent explanation for balancing innovation and optimization. In Catch’s context, the important takeaway is that around the Series A stage you shouldn’t let optimization distract you from the massive leaps you have to make to succeed.
So: we’re looking for organic, scalable, and BIG JUMP strategies. How do we find those?
First, start with an insight. All growth at Catch is driven by insight. We develop channels and strategies based on insights that we believe are unique to our platform or our users’ interaction with our platform. Tactics without insights don’t work. An insight is a unique point of view that’s crafted from observations, intuition, or data about our users. The core of any scalable growth channel should be driven by an insight that fits what we’re building, how we’re building it, and who we’re building it for.
Second, we find ways to validate a hypothesis. After an insight is uncovered, it’s important to turn that idea into a hypothesis that’s specific and actionable. That hypothesis then needs to be validated. What’s the quickest way to get an answer about whether or not you’re right? The aim should be to find quick feedback and build a plan for how to test a working hypothesis more broadly.
Third, take your validation plan and build in delight. Growth is a lot like product. Getting 80% of the way there is often not enough to identify if something will work. Too much friction in a process can stop users from signing up (or from getting started!). Acquisition is its own product. Manage it as such: be organized, think about metrics, follow through, and execution. Attention to detail is important in implementing any growth tactic. Sprinkle in things that aren’t necessarily required but can make someone fall in love with you.
Finally, think through ways to grow the impact. Beyond a small validation, how are you thinking about large scale growth? Make leaps and bounds to expand the reach of your channel or tactic. Growth is one place where you can’t just try something once. Sometimes you have to repeat yourself enough for your partners and potential users to hear and understand you. You don’t have to fully flush out your scaling plans on day one, but you should at least be intentional about identifying how your strategy could scale.
So we’ve built the Growth Thesis. We have a sense of how we want to build our strategy. What strategy did we come up with?
THE 2020 STRATEGY
New Year’s Eve came quietly this year. The team took time with their families to reflect and recuperate. My cofounder and I used the time to catch up on deep thinking and strategy work preparing for the year ahead.
I built our growth strategy in three parts: value propositions, insights, and hypotheses.
Identifying value propositions
A lot of the value proposition was intuitive for our team. We spend all day every day talking to our users and thinking about how to serve them better. But the process of writing down why people would actually trust us with their money and insurance was a helpful exercise. We asked:
- Why do people use Catch?
- How do people think about Catch?
- How does Catch make people feel?
- What do people tell their friends and family about Catch?
These answers helped get us in the frame of mind of understanding where we needed to find people and what we needed to communicate when we did.
This is probably the trickiest part of the whole process. Finding that spark of a unique combination of information as related specifically to your product isn’t exactly a formula, but there’s a good way to start.
Identify what information you have (especially from your value propositions and user data). Information is a fact that’s observable and non-controversial. 40% of our users say they find us through word of mouth. That’s information.
Information can be turned into intelligence if there’s a unique or unexpected observation that most people miss. Intelligence is often not always perfectly clear in the data but requires a bit of an intuitive extrapolation. For example, our users who come from word of mouth are just as likely to have heard about us from a friend or family member as a professional relationship. We don’t ask our users this question directly, but anecdotally, I know we’ve got spouses, siblings, friends, and parents all telling folks in their lives who need benefits to use Catch.
Finally, the insight (magic) part of the process is turning a piece of intelligence into action in ways that are often surprising or controversial and high-impact. In our word of mouth example, the insight is that reaching out to people and messaging the product as something they can be a hero by recommending to their friends and family members who are independent workers changes how we reach people. Some might say that’s a roundabout and expensive way to acquire users. We happen to think it inspires trust and augments authentic interactions (two of our growth thesis principles).
Going through this process earlier this year created about a dozen actionable insights. We’ve decided to table some of them and focus on just a few. We’ve got a small team and want to make sure we’re pointing all of our resources in the same direction.
Now we’re down to brass tacks. We’ve got a framework. We’ve got these things that we know that no one else does. It’s time to put together a complete hypothesis that we want to prove. To prove that scalable, organic growth is possible:
We believe that focusing on a single-geography will allow us to gain critical mass for word of mouth adoption.
There are many other things we could try, but this is where we think we’re going to see the change in momentum we’ve been looking for. This is the start of our Series A growth playbook.
I’m 2,500 words in to this piece, though, and there is a lot to say on the hypothesis itself as well as the tactics we are employing to validate this hypothesis. So, one more time, I’ll ask you to come back and read Part 3 if you’re interested in exactly what we’re doing and whether or not it’s going to work. It may take longer to get Part 3 out the door, because our validation process is in motion right now. We’re writing about how to build a car when we’ve never finished building one before.
Startups are fun. Thanks for tagging along.
If you’ve got product feedback, we’d love to hear it. If you want to help Catch succeed, spreading the word to friends and family who lack employer benefits is a huge lift. A tweet about your superior SEO or understanding of our customer is usually not as much help.