My Experience & Expertise with PLG (Product Lead Growth)

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Emergence of PLG

For the past two years I was working in a high-growth, boot strapped, e-commerce company. How big? Wish I was allowed to say, but let’s just say it was substantial. It seems that during this time, with my head in proverbial the e-commerce sand, an emerging terminology has come to the forefront of SaaS companies: Product Lead Growth, or PLG.

What is PLG?

Admittedly, I didn’t understand it at first. What was this elusive PLG, and why was the market abuzz? After I read a few articles, I came to interpret PLG as a self-service company that also has product-market fit, and thus is able to onboard many customers in a frictionless way without a sales-assisted motion. Then it hit me, this is what DigitalOcean is, and was, all about. A simple, frictionless experience for developers to buy cloud servers. Also connected to PLG, I think that any e-commerce company that has an obsessive focus on top of funnel optimization, and site conversion, is doing PLG as well. So in my combined last two roles, and I have about 8 years of experience with PLG 🙂

My Expertise: Building teams at a PLG Company

This lead me to realize that my expertise is in building post-sales* teams at PLG companies, across Operations, Success, Support, and Trust & Safety. To me, the post-sales work can be thought about in 3 ways:

  1. Proactive: Generating an outbound contact for the purpose of selling more, retention, or to further a relationship (Customer Success).
  2. Reactive: When there’s friction or issues in the experience that cause an issue/ticket/report (Support, Trust & Safety)
  3. Efficiency-Driven: Developing a more efficient process or method to add business value (Operations)

TLDR for Executives & Operators

Inherently, none of these activities are unique to PLG. The distinction comes in the cross-functional relationships and processes that you build. For example, take a user-submitted bug report submitted to Support, that is verified and then fixed by an engineering team. This process sounds very simple, IFTTT-driven, but it is actually very complex and vital in a PLG company. My rough estimate is that I’ve been at companies that have onboarded and served >1 million customers, so I’ve had the chance to build, tear-down, and rebuild loads of the processes. Here are some non-obvious takeaways from those experiences:

  1. The best companies create processes that have a short time to acknowledge an issue, and this quick reaction will be positively noticed by your customers. I don’t care as much about the time to fix an issue because it’s less related to cross-functional processes, and could be a signal of other issues (hiring, eng prioritization, etc.).
  2. Keep a scorecard of your victories. Everyone keeps a backlog of work to do, but I’ve seen fewer teams keep a list of wins, AKA: product improvements that were driven by customer feedback. Review these with your teams, and celebrate the teams who ship for your customers, it will go along way to building relationships.
  3. Teach your post-sales teams how to say “no”. To do any type of post-sales work requires empathy, and a lot of support teams acutely feel a customer’s pain, which makes them effective in their role. The best support teams have empathy AND a strong sense of what the business might need, so they’re able to say “no” to requests that don’t align and they can offer an alternative. One report from a VIP customer vs a report from a novice are not created equally. Learning to tell the difference is a learnable and teachable skill, and the quality of customer feedback in your organization is incumbent upon the leader to create that clarity.
  4. It’s everyone’s role to care about the customer’s experience. If you’re interviewing at a company that puts all the responsibility for customer happiness on post-sales then you should run for the hills. Instead, find a company where every employee acts in the best interest of the customer and make sure to get examples. It needs to be part of a company’s DNA. Data Grouping…

So that’s about it. Some learning, a personal realization, and some lessons. What do you think I missed, got right, or got wrong?

*Post-Sales: For the vast majority of customers, we actually did no selling, and our interactions were overwhelmingly with existing customers, less than 5% were pre-sales. It’s also interesting to note that sales did not work (at all) for DigitalOcean while I was there, and at Wild Alaskan, the majority of pre-sales questions could be handled via self-service and product improvements.