Jenn Steele is the CEO of Kissmetrics, a behavioral analytics tool for product and marketing teams. Here, she shares six cardinal truths she’s learned on the path to becoming product led.
I can admit to being a smart aleck about Product-Led Growth (PLG) in the past. “Product-led, you say?” Ohhh, you mean ‘freemium,’” may have crossed my mind once or thrice. In my defense, I came from enterprise sales and complex products. I worked at Amazon, sold B2B multi-touch attribution at Bizible, and was CMO of Madison Logic. I even spent time in FinTech.
But my mindset has shifted a lot since then. I’ve joined new companies—learning the ins and outs of running a true PLG motion—and since evolved into a passionate, data-obsessed PLG leader. And like any good growth story, mine has certainly come with its fair share of bumps, bruises, and hard lessons in between. Here are six cardinal truths I’ve learned along the road to product led.
🎙️ Read our first interview with Jenn to learn how Kissmetrics is rolling out its new PLG motion!
Hard truth #1: People want the sizzle alongside the steak
Watching the mantra “Sell the sizzle not the steak” shake out in MarTech is when I noticed my perspective about PLG really start to shift. Not only did every company sound exactly the same, but they all talked about revenue. (I often joked that the taglines could sell my athletic shoes.) It also led to a lot of skepticism from buyers, who constantly asked, “That’s nice that you can grow my revenue, but what do you actually do? Are you an account-based marketing platform? Product-led growth tool? A content AI generator?”
It was this “That’s nice, but how?” pushback that helped me synthesize my thoughts around the value of PLG, and it stayed top of mind when I joined Reprise—an enterprise-grade demo creation platform that just so happened to double down on its PLG motion before I came on board.
Since it was easiest to manage PLG at the top of the funnel, and I’m not above copying absolutely everything, I decided to borrow a strategy from my former co-head of marketing at Bizible, Dave Rigotti. Dave is phenomenal at driving top-of-funnel growth—because he sells the sizzle alongside the steak.
At Bizible, he invited customers onto every webinar to talk about the business value they were getting, which he’d support with screenshots and gifs of how it looked inside our product. This let visual folks see our product in action while auditory learners could hear someone talk about how they’re using it.
Knowing it would take time to build up a freemium base, I took a similar approach as we started developing our free version at Reprise. By showing prospects our product early on, and highlighting the value our customers were achieving, we avoided a lot of the “That’s nice, but how” pushback we’d have otherwise heard.
Hard truth #2: An older product makes everything as hard as possible
Joining Kissmetrics in 2022, I spent my early days rebuilding our go-to-market strategy and PLG motion from scratch. We rolled out our free trial a few months after I started, and it’s been anything but a smooth, seamless journey. Being on the market for 15 years, the challenge we have isn’t a lack of awareness or low sign-up volumes. (On the contrary, I get hundreds of sign-ups each month.)
It’s that getting a PLG motion to work in an older product is like playing Whac-A-Mole: Where are they stopping now? What’s happening? Why? How do we fix it? Wait, why did they stop again?
An older product makes it as hard as possible for people to self-onboard and use the product. Because unlike newer tools, which are built for self service, older products like Kissmetrics were designed for a guided onboarding experience. So, for us, it’s not so much about removing entire roadblocks as it is narrowing the barriers so folks can simply do the things we want them to inside the product.
For example, instead of redirecting users to configure domain names and time zones, we teach them how to create a metric first. Rather than throw folks into a blank instance and figure it out themselves, we created pre-built reports that help show the art of the possible in the product. Moral of the story: Be prepared for thing after thing after thing if you’re starting out with an older product.
Hard truth #3: Never underestimate the basics of product marketing
Recently, I had an a-ha! moment about some long-standing friction in our onboarding flow.
For context: Our free trial is designed for a quick win that lets business folks do website tracking without any coding. But more complex scenarios, such as tracking behavior across multiple web properties or after a login, will typically require engineering support. This is also where we tend to see our biggest stalls in the onboarding process.
So, I asked a friend who uses our product about her onboarding experience. When she mentioned sending the link to our Knowledge Base to her engineering team to scope out the project, it hit me. Somewhere along the line we completely skipped over Product Marketing 101. Because while our Knowledge Base has tons of context documentation and technical guides, what it didn’t have is a simple one-pager explaining the exact steps Engineering needs to take to set up our product!
Hard truth #4: Your price point might not match your sales cycle length
Kissmetrics currently offers a 30-day free trial; however, I’ve been debating shrinking it to 21 days. Part of my reasoning is based on the speed of implementation.
We’re seeing that people can achieve their first milestone of product adoption - setting up website tracking - within the first week. This is a good initial indicator. But the deeper and more telling product signal is setting up product tracking. This is again a higher handraise because it takes tapping an engineering resource. The point being that we’re seeing our 2 largest product indicators can happen within roughly 14 days (or to be safe 3 weeks) and don’t need a 30 day trial period – it’s diminishing returns after that.
But most of all, I’m debating our trial length because throwing people into a 30-day trial leaves me dealing with an eight-week sales process. In other words, a spike in demo requests in mid-March won’t close until May. Quite frankly, my product isn’t expensive enough to drag the sales cycle out that long.
To track all of this, we’ve been leaning into our own product’s analytics of measuring both website and product data, to evaluate trial performance and figure out the ideal trial length. I can use Kissmetrics analytics to see what actions our free trial users are taking in the product (and when!), as well as understand where our referral traffic is coming from. We leverage these types of insights to validate other parts of the sales cycle as well.
Not too long ago, Sales mentioned that the demo requests coming from Google Analytics doubled over the past few months. Digging into our web traffic data in Kissmetrics, I looked at the referral sites for both our demo requests and scheduled demos. Sure enough, my sales team was right—100% of the folks who scheduled demos with us had previously visited the “Google Analytics vs. Kissmetrics” page. Whereas before, more than 50% had not looked at that page before scheduling a demo.
Hard truth #5: No, your growth team should not sit under Product.
Here’s where I may stir up some controversy. I agree that a cross-functional growth team is an ideal org structure for PLG companies that 1. have the headcount and 2. want to get things done fast. But I don’t agree that it should sit under Product. Honestly, have you ever seen a bunch of marketers answer to a product leadership? Because I have, and I can tell you that it’s not good.
All humor aside, the ideal org structure for a PLG team looks different at every company and for every motion. Smaller companies, such as Kissmetrics, typically don’t have the headcount to build out a dedicated growth team. In our case, we converted our whole team to support the PLG motion. If a PLG motion fails at a small company, it’s especially tough because they can only take on one big bet at a time.
When it comes to shifting gears internally, I’ve also found that more technical sales teams will adapt to a Product-Led Sales (PLS) motion more easily than traditional sales. When you’re talking to prospects who have someone on their buying committee already using the product, your initial calls no longer follow the “song and dance” sales demo routine. You’re already leaning into a customer support role instead.
But if your sales team traditionally relies on support from sales or solutions engineers, pivoting to a PLS motion becomes a lot harder. The best sales folks know how to talk technology and benefits at the same time, so you’ll want reps with that tech knowledge much sooner in the process.
📚 Read our guide on how to make bottom-up sales work internally.
Hard truth #6: PLG and its future tech stack remains undefined
Speaking of controversy, even the very definition of Product-Led Growth remains up for debate, with most folks subscribing to one of two schools of thought. The first, which is a more narrow view, defines PLG as a free trial or freemium version that lets people use your actual product. The second takes a much broader view, likening PLG to a philosophy for selling your product with your product.
As a systems thinker, I find that the second viewpoint resonates with me the most—it helps me think about how we can apply our product across every stage of the funnel. For example, how do I build my content strategy to support a PLG motion? What should my product marketing strategy look like? How does a PLS motion change my first call?
Likewise, we’re also in the early stages of defining the PLG tech stack as a whole. While there’s definitely an ecosystem in place, it remains unclear where, exactly, PLG tools will fit into the broader mix. Will we have a PLG tech stack or category similar to marketing, sales, and CS tech stacks? Or will PLG be a subset of existing product or marketing tech stacks?
Because just like everything else, PLG technology is highly matrixed and integrated yet still its own system in and of itself. It’ll be interesting to see how the space gets carved out over the next few years.
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