Harsh Jawharkar is a product and growth leader. He partners with investors and founders to ship products and accelerate growth across all stages. Across his career, Harsh has built and scaled marketing organizations at category-defining SaaS companies like Atlassian, Slack, Narvar, and Zendesk. Harsh began his career in product development, combining his background in engineering and design to ship large-scale products at companies like PayPal and Sapient.
In our conversation, Harsh discussed the nuances of a product-led sales strategy, including the importance of building “routers” to direct customers down the right path, how to determine whether product-led sales is the right model for you, and how the voice of the pre-customer should inform what you build.
My approach has always been to come at it from first principles. It’s also important to take an outside-in approach and really think through what the customer’s or prospect’s jobs to be done are. I think that’s a fundamental grounding.
For a while, there was this tendency toward big bang product launches. We’re going to wait, we’ll do this launch, and we’re all in. If it works, it works, if it doesn’t, let’s triage what went wrong. That doesn’t really apply anymore. We’re always releasing things and iterating. We’re not waiting for seven months. I believe GTM should also function like that.
One common challenge I’ve seen in many places is a predisposition to look inward. People will say, “We’re going to ship this, this is what it’s going to do, and then once it’s out there, great! Let’s hope and pray it works.” Unfortunately, those adventures turn into misadventures because they don’t do quite well.
As a product person, you are so personally and professionally attached to the thing you’re building. You want to see it succeed. For many years, the notion was “build it and they will come.” That is not the world that we live in today.
Very early in my own career when I was at PayPal, we were trying to figure out how we could expand the use cases and value of our platform. Basically, PayPal was synonymous with Checkout. We had multiple versions of Checkout that allowed users to transact and quickly do things, but we wanted to figure out if we could use some of our core technology to let consumers use their cash via PayPal.
The concept was built on the premise that you could walk into a store and load cash into your PayPal account to use online. The technology was solid. We created this distribution network and it started growing. Then, we hit a growth wall. This was early in my career, so I really did not understand what marketers do, what business development or salespeople do, etc. As a product person, my conception was that I’ve built a great product and people should just use it. All we need to do is let them know. That was fundamentally flawed.
Product-led growth has come a long way. In today’s world, I think product-led growth is synonymous with a self-service, frictionless method, primarily using a freemium offering to get users to adopt your product, and then convert them into paying customers. When people say PLG as a term, that’s roughly what they mean.
Product-led sales is the evolution of that. Basically, it’s a motion where you can acquire prospects efficiently using the best aspects of product-led growth and then convert them into customers using a sales-assist or sales-led motion. You create a “router” that can direct folks who need sales assistance or in-depth sales conversations to convert into your paid offerings in the appropriate sales lane. That’s product-led sales. This hybrid approach is ultra-efficient, especially for companies that are spanning multiple segments.
The PQL is really a multivariate signal. I think there are three sub-signals that you can add together to come up with an aggregate score, which will then help you rank order, group, or create a cutoff for PQLs. Then, once you prioritize those PQLs because of the segmentation data, you know which lane to send them in.
The first signal is adoption thresholds. At Slack, we looked at the level of activity that a group was creating inside Slack, like the number of channels, messages, or amount of integrations they’ve added. Then, we looked at their usage frequency. All things that correlate to going from a free to a paid subscription.
The second sub-signal for a PQL is firmographic data. If you’ve constructed your ideal customer profile, you can layer that data onto the PQL to say that not only are these users meeting our product signal threshold, but they also fit our ideal customer profile (ICP).
This is a good example where there may be someone evaluating your product, but they may be in a regulated industry and your product may not be the best fit at this point. They really like your product, but in the end, you probably won’t be able to deliver. You should score accordingly based on the firmographic data and that ICP. You also need to attach a segment to it because then you can route them in the right way.
The third sub-signal is persona power. From a user perspective, do we believe this person is in our core persona group and has either purchasing, influencing, or gatekeeping power? That’s important.
That’s right. In the product-led sales model, you can use a layered approach to get a holistic view of feedback:
So, now you have multiple inputs for customer feedback, which then need to be aggregated. It’s more work, but you get a fuller picture. Sometimes you need to read between the lines and that commentary may not be available in a purely agnostic signal from a product perspective.
First, you have to ask if your product itself is conducive to that self-serve, frictionless journey. If there’s a steep learning curve or if you have a lot of dependencies involved, that will be an obstacle to going from what you’re promising to the actual value realized. In that case, self-service may or may not be the best option.
The second factor is the persona fit. Certain customers are open to self-evaluating the product, and that’s great! But if your product is geared more toward, say, a CIO or CTO, that’s going to be tricky. These are not people with a lot of time on their hands so them getting into the weeds is challenging. So there’s a misfit there between the product and the persona, and you need to make some decisions.
The third is about the buyer’s decision-making journey. In many cases, the product purchasing responsibility comes down to a single person or a very small group, and they have to be empowered to make that decision. For example, if you’re selling me something, I need to be able to exercise my judgment and use whatever means I have to quickly get into the trial, into freemium, and then travel through. If I’m not empowered to do that and have to consult different departments (e.g., IT, security, compliance, procurement, finance, etc.), that will slow that journey down.
In that case, there are two different dynamics there. The first is when users who are not the buyers adopt either a freemium and/or trial motion. And this is OK; it happens quite a lot for products being sold to developers or technical audiences. They’re empowered to try the product and, when the time comes, they have permission to work with the buyer or decision-maker and say, “We’ve evaluated this. It’s fantastic. We should go buy this.” That transaction can take place and works where the user is not the buyer.
On the second front, as sort of an anti-pattern, the user’s not the buyer and is also disconnected from the buyer. That is problematic. That’s where the user may check all the right boxes, but there is a chasm of time between when they want the product and can buy it. And if that spans into not just weeks but months, the motion needs to change. Then you also need to target that other persona who is that decision maker at the same time and run a parallel path strategy.
I think the voice of the customer actually starts before they’re customers. It’s the voice of the market or prospect if you will. And it starts at that prospect level because that should really inform how, why, or why not you start building things. Since there are multiple things that you can build or ship, you have to make trade-offs. This will help you do that.
Then, even as you’re building, stay close to the potential or ideal customer profile. This is where product and marketing teams should align early to figure out why someone would use this and what positioning and messaging look like.
When you get to alpha, that’s where things get really interesting. If you’re at a company with a multi-product line, you have the luxury of inviting existing customers to early access.
We did this quite successfully at Atlassian. When we were launching new products, we were able to get a few small customers to come in and participate, giving us really good, honest feedback. As the funnel opens up further, you then have the option to get more quantitative and qualitative data and scale that well into launch.
When I started in product, I felt there were two worlds: the inside (manufacturing hemisphere) and the outside world (the market). PMs would manufacture the product and other teams would take it to market and grow it.
Then, there was a shift to a market-oriented outside-in view. PMs are now asked to look at the market well in advance and understand it, not just in terms of what we might want to build as an opportunity or conceptual problem, but why and for whom. They are now accountable for understanding not just the customer problem/opportunity, but the dynamics surrounding the entire ecosystem in which the product will live.
With that comes another change: building products primed for growth. Products should have characteristics for growth built from the start, not something that’s bolted on later.
I predict that, in the future, we’re going to see how marketing can play a much earlier role in the product conceptualization journey. Almost at a product portfolio level — how do you think about your products as a portfolio of opportunities? Right now, in many cases, we don’t see the forest, we just see the trees. There’s product A, there’s product B, there’s product C, and we run around the trees, but we don’t see them as a portfolio. I predict that’s already changing but in a world where customers have multiple alternatives, this change will accelerate faster.
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