Launching a brand-new software product is never easy. But going head-to-head against established brands like Microsoft and Google is a Herculean task and not for the faint of heart.
Kate Donahue, Head of Product Marketing at Pitch, sales and marketing presentation software, breaks down the startup’s year-long journey from private beta to global launch in October 2020. Today, Pitch is beating the competition in several major categories, including user experience, collaboration, and customer support.
When Kate joined Pitch in June 2019, she was the second marketer on a team of 30 people, many of whom were supremely talented and innovative engineers and product designers. Kate moved beyond a case of “imposter syndrome” to spend her first 100 days getting to know the team, learning everything about the product, fixating on its “high-expectation” users, and mapping its road map until launch. These early efforts paid off.
In this interview, Kate shares a pitch-perfect process (pun intended) to launch a successful product-led growth (PLG) product.
Begin and End with the Customer
Kate started with three objectives:
- Identify the target user
- Fully understand their needs, and
- Figure out how to drive their success.
Her mission was clear. She had to distinguish Pitch’s top use cases, get users to onboard successfully, get their teams to adopt the product, and learn how they defined success and ease of use.
“You want that to get that initial context in those first 30 days – the larger vision we're driving toward – because that's going to inform everything else you do.”
Without a big budget for data collection, Kate relied on good old-fashioned qualitative approach. Personal conversations with users led to a customer archetype. They helped identify the challenges users had with competitive software, including opportunities for Pitch to solve.
Within a two to three-month period, Kate personally onboarded over 100 teams. “Meaningful relationships start with simple questions,” says Kate. Direct conversations helped build empathy and understanding of user needs, drives, and frustrations in a way numerical data never could.
Extensive Beta Testing
During the pilot phase, Pitch had a rare “blue sky” opportunity to chart its own course. With great talent, a generous timeline, no users, and no formal marketing team, everything boiled down to their choices. Staffers brought senior-level experience from previous startups, so they knew exactly which mistakes to avoid and which actions to take.
“In previous companies, you’re always inheriting decisions, inheriting technology, and figuring out your tradeoffs,” says Kate. “We were in this position where it’s like, okay, we’re a year from launch, we can invest in the tools we need, we can set them up how we want, and how do we want to go about doing that. It’s very stressful in its own right, but it’s, you know, first-world problems. A problem everyone wants to have.” The roadmap to launch had “literally a thousand items on it,” said Kate, “with qualitative checkpoints in between.”
Kate recalls the excitement of kicking off their beta within the first 100 days, reaching out to prospective users, and “finally showing off our baby.” At the time, she wondered, “What happens when we put our product into the hands of people? Will things work as expected? What will they point out that maybe wasn’t so obvious to us being so close to the product?”
Extensive beta testing between each phase provided helpful feedback on messaging, language, product refinements, brand narrative, and marketing strategy. You’re at a great advantage “if you understand how people discover and start adopting new software and what that path looks like to purchase,” says Kate.
“When we started our beta, we could hear how users responded to certain language, what they have questions about, and we continued in between each onboarding or in between each phase, taking things into the brand narrative to plot out our content plan.”
The solid feedback from beta proved invaluable to the product team. “Once people feel like they give feedback to a product team, they feel they have some type of influence over the product roadmap as users.”
Open-ended questions allowed users to contribute freely on the pros and cons of competing presentation software. “We kind of just let them vent and they would tell us like, ‘Oh, well, I use Google slides because of this, but then I have to use Microsoft, but the collaboration on PowerPoints is not so great, and Google Slides is a bit limited.’” Kate explains.
“It was really important for me to figure out a way that we could capture it verbatim and true to life as possible so that it wasn’t me coming down from the mountain telling others how to feel about a product. On top of that, we logged feedback and support calls, always pausing to get upfront context on the user’s relationship with presentations.”
By its “limited preview” debut in October, Pitch had a hungry 20,000-person waitlist. To determine priority access, users filled out an online Typeform survey which segmented the audience based on activity usage levels.
For the initial launch, Pitch pulled a 70-30 split of active to less-active users to explore the difference between the two groups. Kate explains, “Once we started to profile people based on their software usage and their usage of specific types of software, we saw a stronger fit, more excitement, and more uptake in how frequently they were using Pitch.”
Kate recommends that product marketers spend time understanding a customer’s ecosystem of tools.
“You need to go beyond competitive research to find out what are the tools they use on a consumer basis and a business basis each day. What are the tools they love and what can you learn from those,” she says. It’s important to be as customer-facing as possible.
“Getting to interact directly with customers and getting inside the heads of your users is really important as a product-led company.”
Finally, she suggests investing time in understanding product analytics and how marketing can or will support it. “You really need to tie what you’re providing from a marketing or education standpoint to an onboarding standpoint and how it translates to product behaviors. The more you do, the more efficient it is for you and your company. You’re delivering what the user actually needs versus what checks the boxes from a traditional marketing point of view.”
For more great information tune in to this podcast episode: "The First 100 Days of Joining a Product-Led-Growth Startup With Kate Donahue, Pitch"