How to Build Your Product for Viral Growth: Lessons from Datadog & Ziprecruiter

Kyle-Poyar by

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from OpenView’s upcoming PLG Playbook. Sign up to receive the full book when it launches here.

The team behind Slack didn’t start out planning to build a messaging and team collaboration app. Rather, they spent years developing a (now defunct) multiplayer online game called Glitch, but found it painful to work together productively as a geographically distributed team. Their pain was so great they allocated valuable engineering time to develop an internal collaboration tool – what we know as Slack today.

Kelly Watkins, Slack’s Head of Global Marketing, describes this inauspicious founding as the secret sauce behind Slack’s success. Since Slack started as an internal tool, “It really was built without an agenda or vanity. It was built to solve some very basic needs…[We thought] ‘what’s the minimum thing that we can produce to solve our needs as a distributed team working on a game?’”

Slack’s experience exemplifies the foundation of a successful product. Start by solving for real user pain. Without that foundation, no amount of optimization will be sufficient to breathe life into your product.

This lesson is echoed by the experience of Expensify, a travel and expense application. Expensify recognized that people hate expense reports – a lot. So much so that the bar Expensify needed to clear with their product wasn’t ‘expense reports you’ll love’ or even ‘good expense reports’, but rather ‘expense reports that don’t suck!’ Jason Mills, Expensify’s Director of Sales and Success, explains,

“It’s very common for the Expensify team to go to conferences, maybe if we’re wearing t-shirts just in random places people are like, ‘Oh, I hate expense reports so much. I looked on Google.’ A lot of people find us organically, because we’re really serving a need, and a pain point that they already have.”

If your product doesn’t solve a clear and urgent pain, stop reading and go fix that first. Otherwise, here’s how to optimize your product to accelerate product-led growth.

Strip out anything that isn’t critical

You’re in the business of designing a product that you want your users to love. That means cutting out any excess complexity that doesn’t directly deliver on solving pain for your users. This entails obsessing over the features that people actually use and being opinionated about how the product should be used. It requires saying ‘no’ to the laundry list of one-off requests that buyers ask for, but that will be over-kill for the bulk of users.

For ZipRecruiter, the rapidly growing job posting app for small businesses, this has meant going against the grain of what competitors were doing and holding firm to product principles. CEO Ian Siegel emphasizes that, “If a feature is not frequently used, we will remove it” and shares an example of how he slimmed down analytics, contrary to their competitors.

“At a time when everyone else in the industry was providing more and more analytics data on how job ads were performing, we found analytics were increasing the number of calls we got to our support. In what was at the time a controversial move, we turned off a large portion of the analytic information we provided. The result? There was a massive immediate drop in inbound support questions with no impact to business performance.”

Monitoring and analytics provider Datadog takes a similar approach, despite being in an industry that isn’t traditionally known for keeping things simple. “Datadog is taking a lot of things that have been done previously in monitoring companies and making the experience so easy, so straightforward, so intuitive that it’s no biggie,” VP of Marketing Alex Rosemblat underscores. They do that in two ways, first by focusing on the key problems they want to solve and secondly, by making it seamless for the user to solve those problems. This sets Datadog apart from their competitors that, according to Rosemblat, “Were so difficult to use that even though they did solve a problem, it was a problem to actually make it solve a problem.”

Deliver value immediately

Great product-led businesses take this radically simple approach to designing products and apply it to how they onboard new users. Their goal is to make it extremely fast for users to get started and see results, which will make the user want to come back over and over again.

At a company like SurveyMonkey, for example, that could mean getting a user to easily design their first survey and then receiving at least five survey responses. Once that hurdle has been cleared, the user is probably going to come back to the application again and again and need more sophisticated functionality (for instance, advanced survey building tools, team collaboration, analytical tools, etc.).

For Join.me, it means making joining a meeting as seamless as possible. That sounds easy, but is harder than it looks. Join.me’s former VP of eCommerce, Eric Bisceglia, says that, “The idea was ‘How can we just make it super, super simple to get into a meeting?’ No downloads, no concerns or worries, just join the meeting.”

Datadog’s Rosemblat notes that they want to make it as easy to sign up for Datadog as starting a Facebook account. “People are up and running with Datadog within minutes, maybe something very complex might take you a couple of hours to do,” he commented This is again unique for the industry, and for most enterprise-grade software.

Users don’t want to have to sit through hours and hours of product onboarding or training videos to get started. Rather, product-led businesses guide their users to complete the key functions they need in the context of what they want to do. Slack, for example, stays away from traditional email onboarding and instead focuses on in-app notifications, which educate users at the exact moment they need guidance. Kelly Watkins explains,

“We believe that [product education] really makes sense in context. You’d look at where somebody is in their lifecycle as a user, what are they thinking about doing at that particular moment and then we’re trying to communicate value to them at that point.”

Make the product stick

All of this work doesn’t stop at onboarding. Top product-led businesses continually focus on driving more usage and integrating their products into users’ day to day lives. That’s because they recognize that product usage is the ‘canary in the coal mine’; it predicts when a user is likely to upgrade, expand their purchase and renew their subscription. Companies can then drive product changes, in-app communication and human intervention to incent behaviors that they know will increase customer lifetime value.

HubSpot makes a great case in point. They take product analytics extremely seriously, according to former VP of Engineering Yoav Shapira. HubSpot brings together disparate data sources like firmographics, feature usage and economic value delivered, and they’ve found that this accurately predicts retention even within the first few days of a customer’s onboarding. Armed with those insights, HubSpot’s account management team knows exactly which accounts to focus on and how they should be influencing customer behavior to drive the most impact. These initiatives have helped HubSpot reduce churn and bring net dollar retention above 100% – not easy for a company that sells to small and midsize businesses.

All of this may sound straightforward on paper. The real challenge comes in building the muscle internally to stay laser focused on the pain point for which you’re solving, strip out everything that isn’t essential and continuously improve as you learn from customers. Given the knockout success of ZipRecruiter, Slack, Datadog and others, being disciplined about your product and implementing a product-led approach can add up to serious returns.

This article is an excerpt from OpenView’s upcoming PLG Playbook. Sign up to receive the full book when it launches here.